Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.... Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
Acts 7:54, 58 ESV
Dear ICB family,
It might be hard for us today to understand how it was that what Stephen said in Acts 7 resulted in getting him stoned. OK, so he called them "stiff-necked." We could understand some nasty comments being posted on his Facebook wall and his not getting inviting to the next social event in Jerusalem, but killed? Wasn't he basically just retelling Israel's history?
Step into the mindset of a first century Jew for a moment and try to understand why, after Stephen's speech to the Jewish council of elders, they "were enraged," "ground their teeth at him," and ultimately "cast him out of the city and stoned him" (Acts 7:54, 58 ESV).
Here are the charges upon which Stephen was initially brought before the Sanhedrin, Israel's high council of elders: "this man never ceases to speak words against this holy place [the temple] and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us" (Acts 6:13–14).
Now in light of those accusations, consider the following details that Stephen chose to include in his retelling of Israel's history and see if you can't spot what made the Sanhedrin mad enough to kill him:
In short, Stephen while commenting on the very things that the Jews held to be most sacred, he was coming to some radically different conclusions than those held by the vast majority of Israelites at the time. Stephen claimed that God was able to speak to his people and dwell with them in places as diverse as Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Midian. He dared to imply that the temple, as meaningful as it was in generations past, had become obsolete and that the Jews no longer had a monopoly on God, so to speak. God could even make a mountain in pagan Midian holy if he wanted to come down there.
He pointed out that both Joseph and Moses (both of whom were decisively changed as a result of the influence of the Egyptians of all people!) were rejected and persecuted by Israel's forefathers, a pattern that goes back all the way to the original patriarchs. Slavery and exile were the things ultimately promised for Israel's disobedience and idol worship, and this current generation of Jews was headed for the same fate as their ancestors for following in ancient Israel's footsteps. And here was the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders, who were acting exactly like their forefathers by disobeying the law, the very thing they prided themselves for keeping.
In this light, then, it's a little easier to understand why the council members "were enraged," "ground their teeth at him," and ultimately "cast him out of the city and stoned him" (54, 57).
The truths for which Stephen died are truths still worth dying for: We don't come to a place to meet with God. We come to a person, the risen Savior and King, Jesus Christ. God isn't merely with us when we're in a particular place. He's with us wherever we go. We don't submit ourselves to Old Testament law codes in order to be found righteous before God. We trust in the "the Righteous One" who made the way for God to be both just and the justified of those who have faith in him, a way that was quite "apart from the law" (see Romans 3:21–26). Not a single group of people on the face of the earth has any privileged position in securing God's favor. The foot of the cross is level ground for every last man, woman, and child ever born at any period in history. Separation from God in exile—and ultimately eternal separation from him in never-ending exile—is the punishment for those who reject Jesus. Enjoying God's presence demands embracing his Son.
May we live, and if necessary die, for these truths, the truths for which Stephen died.
In awe at the hope that is ours,