Acts 6:11-15 – The Charges Against Stephen

Stephen is arrested on false charges and put on trial (Acts 6: 11-15). The false charges against Stephen concern his attitude toward the Law and the Temple. Luke is clear that these are false charges against Stephen. He is not against the Law or the Temple.

Stoning Stephen RembrandtThe charges are similar to those brought against Jesus when he was before the Sanhedrin. Ben Witherington observes that Luke is patterning the death of Stephen after the trial and execution of Jesus.  There are at least ten things the two trials have in common, and two which only appear in Luke/Acts. First, both Jesus and Stephen commit their spirit to God and second both pray for forgiveness for his accusers.

This is an important observation since in the Gospels the Jewish people reject Jesus as the Messiah, in Acts they are rejecting the promised Holy Spirit, the foundation for the Messianic Kingdom.  Both rejections are punctuated by an execution of an innocent man. This in no way says anything about Stephen being exactly like Jesus. It is significant, however, that the first time a Jesus-follower is executed he dies just like Jesus did.

As for the charges, perhaps Stephen used Jesus’ statement that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days or his prediction the Temple would be destroyed in the near future in his preaching in the Synagogue. This could have been used against him in the same way Jesus was accused of threatening the Temple. Both Jesus and Stephen stand within a grand tradition of offering a critique of the Temple and the Priesthood. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible frequently condemned the priests and Temple worship (Jer 7, for example). The Essenes represent a Second Temple period critique and condemnation of the worship nearer the time of Jesus. A Jew saying the High Priest and Temple was corrupt was not particularly revolutionary–but to say the work of your teacher replaced the work of the Temple would have been radical.

Stephen represents a different strata of Second Temple period Judaism which has the potential to be more open to the gospel of Jesus as Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God.  But just like the Judean Jewish leadership, the synagogue of the Hellenists resist the Holy Spirit as well.  Stephen is therefore arrested like the Apostles have been before.

But in this case, Stephen gives a lengthy prophetic sermon condemning the Jewish aristocracy for their resistance against the Holy Spirit, leading to his dramatic execution at the end of chapter seven and the equally dramatic introduction of Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church.

Here is a problem for the readers of Acts.  Luke chose to place this story where he did, balancing his historical, literary and theological motives. Is this solely a critique of the Temple? What is happening in the unfolding story of salvation history in Acts 6-7? What is Luke’s point in placing this arrest, prophetic speech and lynching of Stephen at this point in his narrative?

16 thoughts on “Acts 6:11-15 – The Charges Against Stephen

  1. Luke’s account of Stephen’s speech and stoning is a climactic scenario leading into the introduction of Saul. It is obvious that Stephen is proclaiming a new found salvation through Jesus and that the temple is no longer of the same use. For now because of Christ’s death, we all are welcomed to come before the Lord without barriers (Mark 15:38; Eph. 2:14-15, 18). His speech points to God’s work outside of the Jewish people. He tells them that they “always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51). From this and other comments, he may be a sign to them that God is working through him and not them. No longer are they the leaders of the work that God did among His people. But, these apostles who are doing many signs and wonders and displaying the power of the Holy Spirit are being persecuted by the Sanhedrin. The story of Stephen here in Acts 6-7 is appropriately placed, for it signifies the transition that is starting to take place among the Jews and Gentiles.
    This climactic persecution and death of Stephen is also appropriately placed, for it gives incredible contrast to Saul’s opposition to the church. It only confirms what Stephen said in his speech about these people going against the Messiah and the Holy Spirit. They resisted the Messiah and they resist the work of the Holy Spirit which Stephen may be exemplifying. There are similarities mentioned in this account Luke gives, but could it be that Stephen is somewhat of a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s working, thus truly showing how the Jewish people, not only rejected Jesus as Messiah ending in His death, but they are also are rejecting the Holy Spirit, which is maybe confirmed through Stephen’s death.
    “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56).

  2. I never really realized it before reading this but the fact that Stephen was the first follower that is executed was killed with parallels to Jesus’ death. I really think that Luke put this is where he did to make the point clear that this man who the Jews killed was the Messiah and that these Jews have turned away and have become resistant to the fact that they killed the Messiah. I would love to be able to take to a few of the jews that were present when Stephen was killed. Not the people that killed him necessarily the people throwing but the few that were standing around or passing by. These people were at the cross when Jesus died so they know what he said while He died and I really want to know if hearing the same words come from Stephen’s mouth cause a moment of doubt in what the others were doing. Did those people who understood that he repeated Jesus and was willing to die for Him have second thoughts about if what he was saying was really a false teaching? I love that Luke put this story right after Peter’s message because it shows the resistance from the different types of Jews to the message that they really did kill the Messiah.

  3. Well, I am just going to be blunt here. I am not entirely sure that the placing of this story in this place was such a huge deal. I think that Luke placed it where he did because he wanted to make sure that the reader would have plenty of background on the prior events before just hearing about what happened to Stephen. For example, how could the future reader know why the death of Stephen was significant unless they knew why he was dying? If the reader did not know about Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, they may not understand why Stephen was willing to defend them to the point of his death. Also, maybe Luke did not think that the reader would know the significant ties between Stephen’s death and Jesus’ death so he felt the need to give a back story. Maybe I’m under-thinking this situation, but maybe not.

    • You actually are giving me the sense it was a “big deal” to Luke to place the story here, in order “to make sure that the reader would have plenty of background.” I guess my point is Luke carefully designed this book in order to make his theological point (remember, it is a literary and theological history!)

  4. In terms of Stephen’s accusers, it is interesting that they initially attempted to oppose Stephen publicly and couldn’t withstand his arguments or the Spirit within him. With the many similarities mentioned above between Jesus and Stephen, this actually fits as well (though it is prior to chapter 7 and the trial). Many times the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others tried to argue with Jesus publicly and were always unable to outwit Him or make Him trip on His own words. Similarly, Stephen seems to be preaching emphatically in the area. And just like with Jesus, those who opposed Stephen had to meet secretly to come up with a way to arrest him.
    When he is finally arrested, the accusation that he stands against Temple and law (and even Moses indirectly) is a broad and vague accusation without any substantial evidence (as pointed out by Luke who says they were “false witnesses” [Acts 6:13]).
    It seems that Luke places this story at this exact point in the book to show the lack of interest that the Jews have in the Messiah of Jesus. They don’t want to lose the Temple (because it is a physical manifestation of God’s forgiveness of sins), and they don’t want to lose the power that they currently keep as the heads of the Old Testament-like religion (I say this because at this point even the Sanhedrin are adding things to the law and operating under a strict set of rules that were never intended by the Old Testament law). Stephen’s message, though it is unlikely that he directly opposed the Temple as a whole, is a strike at the heart of the current Jewish state of religious affairs. Stephen is accusing the entire Jewish leadership of being corrupt and not following God’s law any longer (Acts 7:51-53).
    Often in life, we take the least of many matters as a way to strike back at those who have found an inaccuracy in our logic or arguments. It seems to be the same with the Sanhedrin. They have heard a strong argument from Stephen regarding the state of their spiritual standing with God, but they would rather blame him for speaking out against the Temple and not their own actions and hearts. As such, they stone him and kill him. This is a turning point in the book of Acts, because the following chapters show the disciples branching out away from Jerusalem, even to the Gentiles! We like to use the scene of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father as a final judgment piece against the Jews, but really, the Jews had made the decision on their own before that moment…they don’t want to change because they are comfortable in their own standing, and Stephen threatens their physical and material position as the authority in the Temple and religion. They have rejected Jesus as the Messiah, the Holy Spirit as the direction to point their thoughts, and God the Father as the ultimate source of worth and worship. They are now centered on themselves, and as such, Luke will take the story where the gospel message will go next – Samaria and then to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8 foreshadowing).

  5. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:18, 20). In this passage Stephen is experiencing false accusations, hate, and ridicule. Some called him an “ultimate witness,” because he was the first martyr of the early church. Like P. Long said above, there are so many different parallels between Stephen’s death and the death of Jesus. Both show the horror of sin and ignorance, as people try to build up their pride, being hateful of those who speak truth and call them out.

    Although Stephens speech does talk about the Temple, his point was not to make too much of it (Polhill, 2008, p. 2095). Rather, I think that he wanted the religious leaders to grasp the point that the Temple is not what brings salvation, but only Jesus Christ can do that. The Temple was not always around, the early Israelites had a tent that moved and that was Israel’s place of worship. These religious leaders were so stuck on the law and their idea of worship that they forgot to remember (or did not want to) the prophecies that spoke of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament. Both the Tent and the Temple were not supposed to last forever, rather they were to point to something greater, just as Jesus said, “Destroy this Temple, and I will rebuild it in three days” (Jn 2:19). Jesus was and is the “something greater” and we now have access to him from anywhere through the Holy Spirit, which is not confined to a specific place.

    It is interesting to me the placement of this story in the book of Acts. We see that Stephen is part of the seven chosen to serve, but soon after was persecuted for his faith. Throughout the book of Acts so far we see similarities of people being brought to Christ through the apostles and then persecution of the church. Stephen’s story follows after a continued increase in the word of God and numbers being multiplied across Jerusalem (Acts 6:7). Luke is showing us the reality of being a follower of Christ. He is also showing us that it is not only the direct disciples of Christ who are going to be persecuted, but anyone who follows the Lord.

  6. To be a Christian means to be a follower of Christ, not merely an observer of Christ. Stephen takes following Jesus to the absolute extreme, to the point of being arrested and murdered. Stephen was the first recorded persecution after the death of Jesus on the cross. The similarities between Jesus and Stephen’s arrest and death have been pointed out by several others in the comments and the original post. The main similarities that stand out are “both Jesus and Stephen commit their spirit to God” and “both pray for forgiveness for his accusers” (Long, The Charges Against Stephen).

    What surprises me is the false accusations that Stephen receives in Acts 6:13. Jesus was also falsely testified against because the Jewish leaders were fearful and angry about his influence and bold claim of being the Messiah. What is shocking is that Stephen was not claiming to be the Messiah, he was only reinstating that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Why then, did the Jewish leaders feel just as fearful and angry towards Stephen as they did Jesus so much to have him similarly killed?

    These similarities are significant because they signify that Jesus was not the only one subject to this kind of treatment. I believe Luke places Stephen’s story shortly after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus to show other believers the consequences of being a Christ-follower. Luke wanted believers and converts to understand what they were placing their faith in and what that faith would require of them. In some cases, their very life. Are we willing to lay down our lives for the Gospel like Stephen, or are we “Christians” who are merely observing?

  7. I never realized the many connections between Stephen’s charges from the Sanhedrin and charges made against Jesus. As discussed in the blog post Stephen and Jesus had a lot in common with their charges from a very broad sense in their attitudes toward the law and the temple. Both of these people are completely innocent but the community around them believed differently and in turn Stephen and Jesus both faced persecution. Initially reading and thinking about this I wonder how God is going to deal with Israel and this community on judgement day or even during the end times. In regard to the question brought up at the end of this post, what is Luke’s point in placing this arrest, speech, and lynching, at this point in the narrative of Acts; I think that this placement is perfect because it gives a great transition into the conversion of Saul to Paul and his faith/ his missionary journey which comes later on in our readings of Acts (Acts 9).

    • I agree with you that I also had not realized the connections between Stephen’s charges and the charges against Jesus. Stephen was the first follower that was killed and this has many parallels to Jesus’ death. It is so scary to think the people thought they were so right in their beliefs and lead to the necessity of persecution of Jesus and Stephen.
      It reminds me of the world today. People are so stuck in their beliefs and are starting to believe stuff even if it is unbiblical. For example, abortion. A large majority of the world believes in abortion even if it is against the Bible. I wonder if this was in Bible times what Stephen would have been saying to those people. In Acts 7:51-54, he is blunt and bold in his words with the believers and I imagine he may take a similar tone.
      In your post, you said, “Both of these people are completely innocent but the community around them believed differently.” This once again makes me reflect on our current society now. Are their people that have been persecuted even though they were innocent? People around the world are being persecuted for the gospel daily, but as Americans, we don’t hear about it because we don’t face the same level of persecution today. We are safe here but that does not mean everyone is safe. Maybe like the people of Sanhedrin, we need a wake-up call. We need someone like Stephen to call us out and wake us up to our misbeliefs and unawareness of what’s happening in the world.

  8. As this blog points out, Stephan’s arrest and death mirror that of Jesus’ arrest and death. As the blog states, both were persecuted on false charges, and both were rejected as parts of the Trinity, Jesus as the Messiah and the Holy Spirit speaking through Stephan. There is a connection to be made here. When I read Acts 6, and the question arises, why did Luke pick the execution of Stephan to be put in this order of his letter. One thought comes to mind is he is setting up the story and timeline of Saul’s transformation into Paul. We see right after Stephan was stoned to death, Saul emerges for the first time, “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58b). We see a new character being introduced, and from this quote, we see that Saul has to do with Stephan’s murder. This is also backed up in Acts 8 where Saul is coming after the Christian church, “But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (Acts 8:3). We clearly see that Luke is setting up a villain and a hero, a protagonist and antagonist. Saul is labeled as the villain early on. Luke may be doing this to show how powerful the transformation from Saul to Paul really is. Turning a man who was devoted to killing Christians, to the man that wrote most of the New Testament and ultimately died for his faith in Christ. We see that Paul uses his story several times to encourage believers and share with them, example, “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). Paul keeps going on about his transformation of Saul to Paul. I think Luke may have set up the story of Stephan because his death plays a role in who Paul becomes, and how he uses his story to further spread the gospel.

  9. I think that Luke’s point in adding the story of Stephen’s arrest, speech, and stoning was because it showed the progression of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Not only was Stephen’s speech “a selective recital of OT history” that eventually lead to the teachers of the law rejecting Jesus, but it also shows how much Jesus meant to His followers: so much that they were willing to die for Him (Polhill, 2091). Until now in Acts, we’ve seen the Holy Spirit descend upon the believers and many come to know Jesus through their preaching. However, other than a few arrests, they haven’t had too much resistance until now. The stoning of Stephen marks the beginning of the scattering and persecuting of the believers of Jesus. This is why I believe that Luke added this story where he did. Historically and in accordance with literacy, it showed a timely progression and reason for why the believers were scattered across the world. It also showed theologically that what the disciples and believers were spreading was truth in accordance with the Old Testament. So, I think that Luke does a great job including Stephen’s story where he does because it shows the important progression of the story being told in Acts which eventually leads to Saul and his conversion.

  10. The emphasis on false charges is important. Stephen is known as a martyr and if the charges were true, then would that make him less credible in scripture? The interesting thing about what they accuse him of is partly true. The whole statement they give to the council certainly is not. However, they mention Moses twice. Once to indicate that he was blasphemous against him (v. 11) and once to say that Jesus was coming to change the traditions given by Moses (v. 14). Unfortunately for Stephen, they seemed to miss the difference between how Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses, rather than how He changed it. The Jewish traditions certainly changed but we see that further into Acts. We do not even fully see that yet in Acts 6. The believers still go to the temple to pray and speak to one another. Thus far they have kept their traditions and have not been challenged really any differently. The speech Stephen gives is important, the timing of the narrative is important, and seeing Saul in action for the first time is important. There are numerous reasons that Luke may have chosen to put this here, but I am seeing the similarities and contrast to the ministry of Peter as well. He has berated the council numerous times to this point, and Stephen, being willing to die for this same message is incredibly visual. The willingness to suffer for the sake of the Christ is not lost on the readers and I am sure was not lost on the members of the Freedman Synagogue or members of the council.

  11. This part of Acts was very interesting for me to read. Reading about the similarities between Jesus and Stephen was very interesting, and it just reiterated the fact that Jesus and man can have similar attributes. I never realized that Stephen had some of the same stuff happen to him when he was accused as Jesus did. One similarity is that Stephen and Jesus had something to do with the Temple. This story had an interesting placement, but I think a main point in regard to the temple was to place the fact that the temple did not hold power. The temple has a huge meaning behind it, but it was just a place. The temple was not the thing giving salvation to people because Jesus was the one who was doing that. The temple was not always around but the works of Jesus were.

    Going off of that idea and relating it to today’s society, I think a lot of people put their faith into the church. Just like the temple, the building of the church is just a structure. The foundation of the church comes from Jesus and the people being disciples of Christ. This pandemic really showed that the power of the church comes from the people when all of the churches got put in the lockdown. Just an interesting thought that came to my mind!

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