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God’s Word for You

Acts 7:57-8:1 A stoning

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, January 3, 2020

57 Then, hollering at the top of their voices and covering their ears they all rushed at him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him.

How is it that the gospel could have this effect on men who spent their lives studying the Scriptures? The word of God always accomplishes something. It is never a dead letter. Sometimes it creates faith, and sometimes (if resisted) it hardens hearts and seals unbelief. “It will not return to me empty,” God says. “But it will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). The Lord had promised through Amos: “For three sins of Judah, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because they have rejected the law of the LORD and have not kept his decrees, because they have been led astray by lies, the lies their ancestors followed, I will send fire upon Judah that will consume the fortresses of Jerusalem” (Amos 2:4-5). Rejecting Christ had set the Sanhedrin at odds with Christ’s followers, and with Stephen in particular. They flew into a rage, paradoxically shouting and plugging their ears. If the scene were not so deadly it would be comical: A horde of seventy elderly men in flowing robes gnashing their teeth, running, shouting, with their fingers in their ears, all in the same moment?! It was like a scene from a Marx Brothers film.

The stoning happened all at once, with no proper preparation. The Mishnah lays down specific regulations for a stoning (which was illegal without Roman consent at any rate).

1, If a man was found guilty, the verdict was held over until the next day, to be sure all who favored the verdict still favored stoning (Sanhedrin 5:5).

2, The condemned man was to be led out of the city with a herald who was to shout, “This man, son of (his father), is going out to be stoned because he committed such an offense. This man and that man are witnesses against him. If any man knows any reason why he should be acquitted let him come forward and plead!” (Sanhedrin 6:1).

3, Fifteen feet (ten cubits) from the place of stoning, the condemned man was allowed to confess his faith, ‘for everyone who makes his confession [of faith] has a share in the world to come’ (as Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, give glory to the Lord, the God of Israel,’ etc., Joshua 7:19). (Sanhedrin 6:2).

4, Three cubits (four feet) from the place of execution, a man was stripped naked (this was forbidden with a woman, Sotah 3:8; Sanhedrin 6:3).

5, Finally, the two witnesses were to strike the man with stones from above, such as a hilly outcrop or a precipice (‘twice the height of a man’ Sanhedrin 6:4).

6, If he did not die from these blows, the whole group was to stone him until he died, after which his body was to be hanged, either on a gallows, or on a beam “as the butchers do” (Sanhedrin 6:4), but never overnight (Deuteronomy 21:23).

As far as we know, none of these things was done; the stoning of Stephen was more like an out-of-control brawl; a lynching. Since the court did not actually hand down a verdict, neither the court nor the Jews of Jerusalem could really be held responsible by the Roman governor, Pilate, for what happened. Even though the Sanhedrin itself stoned Stephen to death, it kept itself free of blame by being able to say that the stoning was done “by a mob” and not by the command of the court.

The witnesses threw down their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

This sentence tells us that at least the witnesses against Stephen were involved in his stoning, but of course, the sentence is here for another reason altogether. Here for the first time, we are introduced to Saul, whom we know better by his Greek name, Paul. A “young man” at this time, he was probably about thirty or a little older. Paul was probably born at about the same time as Jesus; it was likely that he was the same age or a little older than many of Jesus’ apostles.

59 As they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  60 Then falling down to his knees he cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Even amid the agony of being killed in such a way, Stephen was thinking only of his Savior Jesus. Like Jesus, he quotes Psalm 31:5, “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (see Luke 23:46), but Stephen knows that Jesus and the Father are equally the Lord God, and so he addresses Jesus by name. Then he prays for the sake of his murderers, just as Jesus did (Luke 23:34).

For the Christian, death is no more than a sleep from which we will awaken to paradise. Paul would use this expression in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, and other times in his letters (1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:15). Jesus had spoken of Lazarus as asleep after he died (John 11:11), as well as the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52). The word “sleep” naturally implies waking up again, and so the word carries with it faith in the resurrection.

At this point, our versions and translations make a break in the text to begin chapter 8 (ancient manuscripts generally do not have such divisions apart from an occasional dot between words or a paragraph break in the text. This is a correct understanding of Luke’s document, because Stephen’s death brought on a persecution which allowed the gospel of Jesus to be carried outside Jerusalem into all of Judea and Samaria, which Jesus himself had prophesied before his ascension: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

1 And Saul was there, consenting fully to his death.

Saul was not a member of the Sanhedrin. We can say with certainty, based on passages such as Acts 21:29 and 22:3, that he belonged to the synagogue of Tarsus near the eastern border of Asia Minor, in what had once been the kingdom of the Hittites (Joshua 1:4, 9:1; Judges 1:26) but was now under Roman control. Saul was actually a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28). A Pharisee and a pupil of the Pharisee Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Saul was a brilliant student of the Old Testament scriptures. He firmly believed that, under Jewish law, Stephen deserved the death he received.

On that day a great persecution rose up against the church in Jerusalem. Except for the apostles, they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.

It pleases God to elevate the lowly, to bring down the mighty, and to make his enemies into his children purely by his grace. He would use this opponent, Saul, for spectacular success in bringing the same gospel for which Stephen was stoned to death to the far reaches of the Roman empire. Yes, Saul would bring the gospel to the household of Caesar (Philippians 4:22) and to Caesar himself (Acts 27:23-24).

Most of the Christians fled, “scattered” by the persecution. The word for “scatter” here is diaspeiro, from which our word ‘disperse’ comes. This was the true beginning of the sowing of the seed of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, into the places where Jesus had already prepared the soil. The Holy Spirit would be the one to bring forth the harvest.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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