44. “Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen,
The Sanhedrin trusted in their own rightness, but Stephen showed them that that was untrustworthy. They trusted in their fathers, but Stephen showed them that their fathers had often been ungodly. They trusted in the law, but Stephen showed them that the mere possession of the law was not enough to please God. Now, he will deal with one final thing which they were trusting in: the presence of the temple among them in Jerusalem. Remember, too, that this was one of the things they accused him of blaspheming.
Stephen goes back to the origins of the temple, speaking of how their fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as God appointed, and made according to the pattern that Moses had seen. Yet Stephen had already showed that Israel did not serve God in the wilderness, so again the mere presence of the tabernacle among them was not enough to make them right in the sight of God.
45. which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David,
Now Stephen passes on from the unfaithful generation in the wilderness to that faithful generation that came into the land with Joshua, bringing the tabernacle which they had received from their fathers into the land with them.
Here, the name “Joshua” is, in Greek, the name “Jesus,” as it was rendered in the King James Version. The name “Jesus” is simply the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” and this is demonstrated here. There was nothing unique or new about the fact that the Lord was named “Jesus.” This was the same name that existed long before in Israel. The name “Jesus” or “Joshua” means “Jehovah the Savior.” When men bore this name in the past, they gave witness to the fact that Jehovah is the Savior. When the Lord bore this name, however, it had a different significance, for in His case, He was Jehovah the Savior.
Joshua brought the tabernacle into the land that was possessed by the nations whom God drove out from before the face of their fathers. Thus, the tabernacle remained in the land until the days of David. Stephen is moving much more quickly through the history now, but this is because he is now tracing out the history of the tabernacle, rather than that of the man Moses, as he had been doing previously.
46. who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob.
David, as we read here, found favor before God, and he asked God to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. What he wanted to do was to build God a permanent temple rather than the movable tent that was the tabernacle, as we can read in II Samuel 7.
47. But Solomon built Him a house.
The Lord did not allow David to build the temple, but promised him that his son after him would build it. This came to pass, for his son Solomon did build the Lord a temple. However, it was during Solomon’s reign that idolatry began afresh in Israel, later increasing to such a state that God scattered the people from the land. The mere presence of this Divine building, then, did not guarantee anything regarding the people either.
48. “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:
This is a verse that all who claim to worship the God of the Bible would do well to take to heart. Any time anyone speaks or acts in a way that would indicate that God does dwell in an earthly building, that person is denying the truth of this verse. I remember once when I heard a woman admonish some children who were running and playing in a church building. Her rebuke to them was, “We shouldn’t run in God’s house.” This is not the only time I have heard someone speak along these lines, either. Over the years I have heard many different people speak of things that shouldn’t be said or done “in the Lord’s house.” These people were simply denying the truth that God does not dwell in temples made with hands. Let all my readers beware of holding such an attitude towards any church or other building made by men. To call any earthly place the “house of God” is to fail to believe this verse, and the important truth that God revealed here through Stephen.
49. ‘ Heaven is My throne,
And earth is My footstool.
What house will you build for Me? says the LORD,
Or what is the place of My rest?
Stephen now quotes from Isaiah 66:1-2. This verse is important for several reasons. For one, it tells us that heaven is God’s throne. A throne is a seat of government, and so we learn that heaven is currently God’s governmental center. Yet in spite of this statement, there are many who insist that God can never take control of the earth’s governments and make them His Own, making this earth His footstool, until He returns from heaven to the earth. But why should He have to leave His seat of government to come to His footstool before He can reign over it? The fact is that, when that time comes, the truth of Psalm 103:19 will be in effect, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, And His kingdom rules over all.”
In light of the fact that heaven, not the earth, is His throne, the LORD asks here what house any human being can build for Him? Of course, the answer is that no one can truly build such a house. “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it,” as Psalm 127:1 declares. But even the temple that the Lord built in Jerusalem could not contain Him. It could not truly become the place of His rest. Yet these religious leaders were putting all their trust in the presence of the temple among them. Just like those in Isaiah’s day, they were putting all their hope in an earthly building, rather than the God Who sanctified that building. Stephen is explaining to them here that that trust is misplaced. Yet this message was no more popular in Stephen’s day than it was in Isaiah’s. These men took great pride in their earthly temple, and they did not want to hear that their view of that building was greater than the truth. In the same way, men today are loathe to believe the truth about these earthly churches that they build. They want to believe that they are far more in God’s sight than they could ever truly be. And none of these have been built by the direct command of God, as the temple was!
50. Has My hand not made all these things?’
The LORD had made all the materials of which the temple was made. How, then, could that temple contain Him and provide Him rest? Stephen proves to these men what they did not want to hear: that the temple in which they put so much pride was nothing next to God. Now, they were exalting that temple at the same time as they were refusing to obey God!
51. “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.
Now that he has shown the Sanhedrin the falsehood of their reliance on their physical descent from the nation of Israel and upon their fathers, on their own position as leaders in Israel, on the law that they had been given, and upon the temple over which they exercised control, he will accuse them of the crime they were committing that they tried to hide under all these things. While taking glory in all the trappings of Godliness, they were behaving in a stubborn and stiff-necked way before God. They refused to hear both Christ and the apostles Christ had sent to them, and instead fought against them. They were also uncircumcised in heart and ears. Notice the use here of “uncircumcised” in the sense of sinful and not set apart to God. They had not put off “the body of the sins of the flesh,” as Colossians 2:11 speaks of the circumcision of Christ.
Moreover, they always resisted the Holy Spirit, just as their fathers did. “The Holy Spirit” here is to pneumati to hagio, or “the Spirit the Holy” in Greek, and so is speaking of the Person of the Spirit rather than His power. It was He they were always resisting. They were unwilling to hear His words or obey His commands as they were even then being spoken through Stephen.
We cannot help but think that Stephen’s stern denouncement of the Sanhedrin here was based in part on their stubborn refusal to hear his words up until this point. The Holy Spirit knows that these men have not listened to the persuasive words He has set before them so far, and so now He indicts them for their stubborn and unyielding hearts.
52. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers,
Rather than merely pointing out the parallel between what they were doing and what had happened to Joseph or Moses, the Spirit now speaks out and accuses their fathers of persecuting the prophets God had sent to them. The religious leaders were very proud of their position, but they did not like to admit that even in the history of Israel already past it was usually from the leadership of the nation that the persecution against God’s prophets arose. So it was those who were their fathers who had killed those prophets God sent who foretold the coming of the Just One, Jesus Christ. Now, they had acted in the same manner, and had betrayed and murdered the Just One Himself, showing that they were true sons of their fathers!
The Lord’s words continue with their changed and much harsher tone. Perhaps God was seeking to jar these men to a realization of what they were doing by these strong statements. Drastic measures were needed, for these men were now on the very brink of rejecting God’s message once and for all to their own destruction.
53. who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
The Sanhedrin were among the people of Israel, which people were highly honored by the fact that they were the people who had received the law by the direction of God’s messengers. Yet they had not kept the law, and thus had forfeited any honor they might have had in God’s sight.
Now the Holy Spirit through Stephen completely turns the tables of the trial around on the Sanhedrin. They had begun this trial based on some trumped-up charges that Stephen had blasphemed or spoken against the law. Yet now Stephen through the Holy Spirit accuses them of being the ones who have broken the law. This was a stirring yet accurate accusation to make, and it unmasked the truth of this whole trial. This whole scene was not about anything that Stephen had done, but rather about the Sanhedrin’s stubborn refusal to obey God.
54. When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.
As had happened in chapter 5, when the apostles standing before these men boldly revealed to them that the reason that they had received the Holy Spirit from God and the Sanhedrin had not was because they obeyed God while the Sanhedrin disobeyed Him, so now these men are cut to the heart by Stephen’s words. The word for “cut” here and in chapter 5 is diaprio, and means they were cut through by this. This was not the same sort of cutting as in Acts 2:37, where the Greek is katanussomai, meaning that they were pricked in their hearts by Peter’s words. We saw that that pricking led to a submissive attitude, whereas this cutting did not. Yet these men still could have responded to this in a proper way, and have yielded their hearts to God and sought forgiveness for their godless actions. Unfortunately, we see that this was not their reaction. Instead, they gnashed at him with their teeth. And, though this was culturally a sign of anger and rejection, nevertheless we cannot help but note that these proud and self-righteous men were reduced to gibbering like beasts, so great was their hatred of God’s word against them.
55. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God,
Though the Sanhedrin were enraged against Stephen, they did not break into his testimony as yet. And God had one more witness to bring against them. Now, Stephen is full of the power of the Holy Spirit (this is “spirit holy” without any articles, and so refers to His power, not His Person.) In that power, he gazes into heaven and sees an amazing sight. This trial was taking place in the temple, and probably was in one of the courts that was open to the sky. Nevertheless, to see into heaven, Stephen needed more than natural eyesight. He receives a vision, and sees what only eyes empowered by the Lord could hope to ever look upon. He beholds the glory of God, even Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
I believe that kai or “and” here is in apposition, and that the glory of God IS Jesus standing at the right hand of God. II Corinthians 4:6 declares, “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” From this verse we learn that the glory of God is found in the face of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when Stephen saw the glory of God, what he saw was Jesus Christ. Christ is the glory of God.
Now Stephen not only sees Christ as the glory of God, but he also sees Him standing on the right hand of God. As we have discussed earlier in Acts, the right hand was the position of power or authority. What is meant here is that Jesus Christ was standing on the rights of God. He was taking His stand in the place of God Himself.
Many have puzzled over the fact that the Lord is seen standing on the right hand of God here rather than sitting. He is represented as sitting on the right hand of God in many passages. First of all, Christ predicts He will sit there in Matthew 26:64, where God is called “the Power.”
Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Mark 14:62 is a parallel passage with this. Mark 16:19 assures us that the Lord did ascend to do this.
So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.
Hebrews 1:3 confirms that this took place.
who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high
Hebrews 10:12 and 12:2 repeat the same truth. And finally, Colossians 3:1 confirms that the Lord is indeed still sitting there during our dispensation today.
If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.
Thus, the fact that He sat down on the right hand of God is amply testified to in Scripture. Yet here, unlike these other passages we have considered, Christ is represented as STANDING on the right hand of God, rather than SITTING. What is it that causes this difference?
Many and wild are the ideas that men have come up with as to the significance of Christ standing here. One popular idea among dispensationalists is that He was standing up preparing to come back, and if the Sanhedrin had accepted Stephen’s message and repented, He would have come back right then. This is an utterly fanciful interpretation, and ignores all that the Bible has to say about the many things that must take place before Christ returns in His victorious parousia.
Some Acts 28 dispensationalists have suggested that Christ stood at the right hand of God in the Acts period, and sat down at the right hand of God after Acts 28:28. This, too, is an opinion that ignores Biblical fact, for Matthew and Mark speak of Him sitting down before the dispensational change was ever announced, and Hebrews was likely written before the Acts 28:28 dividing line as well. These explanations simply do not fit with the facts in the case.
Ultimately, I do not believe that whether or not Christ is standing on His feet or sitting in a chair is the important point in any of these passages. The importance is what these actions signify. The fact that He sat down when He ascended back to the Father could be symbolic for the fact that His priestly work on our behalf was completed, for the priests never sat while performing their service. Yet ultimately, the idea of sitting is of a place of settled rest. The Lord did not just take the rights and authority of God for a short time when He returned to heaven, but rather settled down and took His seat there. He is well-established in that place, and sits there even now.
In this light, standing up is what one does preparatory to going into action, for one cannot be very active while sitting. The Lord taking His stand upon the rights of God means that He was ready to actively use those rights. He was not going to stand by and let events take their own course. Rather, He was standing up to go into action. Isaiah 3:13 declares, “The LORD stands up to plead, And stands to judge the people.” Stephen saw the Lord Jesus standing, ready to plead with His people and to set them in His kingdom order. And in the Acts period we see and cannot doubt His activity, though that activity came to an end, and the full manifestation of the kingdom of God awaits a yet-future fulfillment.
Thus, in these senses, the Lord could be both sitting and standing at the right hand of God at the same time. These words express a great truth, yet we belittle that truth when we make out that the only significance is whether He was sitting in a chair or standing on His feet.
56. and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
The amazing sight that Stephen sees draws forth this exclamation of wonder from his lips. His words testify to the Sanhedrin the truth of where the One they crucified, Jesus Christ, is now enthroned. Remember, this truth was given to them by a man whose face was like the face of an angel. They should have listened to him.
57. Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord;
The response of the Sanhedrin to God’s convicting words is a terrible rejection of the truth He had brought before them. This trial does not end in any sort of orderly way. Stephen is never convicted of any real crime. No sentence is passed. Instead, these men who tried to portray themselves as the honorable rulers of Israel respond like brute beasts, and charge Stephen in a riot. They cry out with a loud voice and stop their ears. It seems they wanted thus to block out any further testimony from God against them. So great was their rage and hatred for God’s words that they shut them out and refused to even allow them to enter their ears. Thus these men utterly failed their final trial before the Lord. Their fate is now determined. They will have no part in God’s future plans for Israel. Though they will be raised to see many others entering the kingdom of God, they themselves will be cast out of it to their own destruction, as the Lord warned in Luke 13:28.
58. and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Here we have the sad outcome of Stephen’s trial of the Sanhedrin. They cast him out of the city and stone him. This was no judicial action, for the trial was never ended and sentence was never passed. This was a mob action, and Stephen’s death was nothing but a murder.
Now we are introduced to a new character in the Scripture narrative: this man named Saul. He is called a young man, and the word in Greek, neanias, probably indicates that he was around thirty-three, about the same age as the Lord had been at His death and resurrection, so recently having taken place. He has not appeared in any of the conflicts with the Sanhedrin previously, though he now becomes a prominent figure. It may well be that he had been out of Israel until recently. Some have speculated that he may have been acting as a missionary for Judaism to the Jews who were scattered among other nations, he himself having been born outside the land. At any rate, he appears now suddenly on the scene. At this point, he is on the wrong side of matters, for the witnesses to Stephen’s execution laid down their clothes at his feet, a sign that he was the one overseeing the trial and seeing to it that all was done legally and in order. He did not really do his job here, for as we have noted, the trial was never properly ended, and so this was a murder, not an execution.
59. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
As this mob stones Stephen, he responds by calling on the Lord Jesus. There is no word for “God” here in Greek, and so the one he was speaking to and calling on was the one he names, the Lord Jesus. He had just seen the Lord standing on the rights of God, and he now appeals to Him to receive his spirit. No doubt he remembered the very words his Lord had spoken upon the cross, when He had prayed, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Luke 23:46. Now, Stephen imitates his Lord and says the same thing, only he pleads with the Lord Jesus to be the One to receive Him. Of course, as we know, He and His Father are One.
What did Stephen mean when he asked the Lord to receive his spirit? Did he mean that he had a spirit being living inside him, and he wanted the Lord Jesus to receive this when he died? This is what most people seem to imagine about the make-up of men. Yet this is not right, for this would make us to be spirit beings rather than human beings. The spirit is that aspect of men that the Lord breathed into the nostrils of Adam at the creation that made him a living soul. It has to do with the life of a person. This is what Stephen was dedicating to the Lord. He was putting his life into the Lord’s hands, trusting Him for his own, future resurrection.
60. Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen, as he knelt down, which was the position they would have forced him into just as they were raising the first stone to crush it into his chest to stop his heart, or to crush it into his head to smash his skull, cries out with a loud voice. Perhaps his brave repetition of the Lord Jesus’ words in the previous verse recalled to his mind another, gracious thing that the Lord had said when on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Luke 23:34. These were Christ’s words of forgiveness for His enemies that had bought the Sanhedrin now these three chances to hear the truth set forth plainly to them so that they might believe. All three opportunities had been wasted by them, however, and yet now they had clearly heard. Now, they knew exactly what they were doing. Thus, Stephen could no longer plead their ignorance, as the Lord had done. Nevertheless, he graciously requests that this sin, that is, the sin of putting him to death, might not be laid to their charge.
Now I do believe that God granted Stephen’s request. Stephen was speaking full of the Holy Spirit, and God would not fail to heed the words of His faithful martyr. However, the Sanhedrin had far more of which they could be charged than just this. They had now heard God’s words clearly presented to them, and had rejected them three times. Now, they were chargeable according to the Lord’s words against them. “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.” John 12:48. They had God’s word against them now, and that word would judge them righteously as worthy of death. “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” John 8:24. These men refused to believe, and so their sins will not be forgiven. They will arise in the resurrection, yet they will not be allowed to continue in life, but will be cast out of God’s kingdom. “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” Luke 13:28. Thus, the final fate of these men was already determined. Though they would not be charged either with Christ’s death or with Stephen’s death, their stubborn refusal to hear God’s words spoken to them would be enough to remove them for all time from God’s kingdom.
Yet I do believe that Stephen’s words here did have a glorious and wonderful outcome. For there was one in the crowd who, as far as we can tell, had had nothing to do with the death of Christ. He had not heard the words of Peter and John during their first trial before the Sanhedrin, nor the words of the twelve during their second trial before them. He had heard Stephen’s words, but not having the background of all that had come before, he still remained ignorant of the truth. This man had consented to Stephen’s death, and if Stephen had not prayed this, he would have been chargeable with it. This man was Saul.
Suppose that Stephen had not had the same spirit as his Lord in this case. Suppose, with Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest, he had cried out against his murderers as he died, “The LORD look on it, and repay!” II Chronicles 24:22. What then might have become of the man Saul? Of course, we cannot say, for things did not happen this way. Stephen called upon the Lord to do this, and He did it for the one man in the crowd for whom this was still his only crime, the one man who could still be said to be in ignorance, the man Saul. Because of Stephen’s Christ-like attitude here, Saul would be forgiven of this crime, and later would come to the Lord and be exalted to be His apostle to the Gentiles. Yet in many ways, we can thank Stephen for this, for his words of forgiveness here bought Saul this chance. Praise God for what a faithful martyr Stephen was, but also for what a forgiving man of grace he turned out to be in his last moments. Because of this, even such a one as this man Saul received forgiveness.
Now, the Lord testifies, almost tenderly, that at this point Stephen fell asleep. This is a form of the Greek word koimao, which means to fall asleep involuntarily, and so is often used as a figure for death, as it is in the story of Lazarus in John 11:11. Stephen had served the Lord faithfully to the end. Now, he falls asleep. Yet someday, the Lord will awaken him, and then he will take his place once again as one of the most exalted men in God’s kingdom. This will be his for, though the Sanhedrin failed their trial, this man Stephen passed the test. He ran his race faithfully, even to the end. May each one of us be willing to do the same!