In many particulars Stephen was the forerunner of Apostle Paul. Up to this time the conflict had been chiefly maintained with the Aramaic Jews; but Stephen carried the war of the Gospel into the territory of the Hellenists. The learned members of the foreign synagogues endeavored to refute him by argument or by clamor. The Cilician Synagogue is particularly mentioned (Acts 6:9, 10) as having furnished some conspicuous opponents to Stephen, who "were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit with which he spake." We cannot doubt, from what follows, that Saul of Tarsus, already distinguished by his zeal and talents among the younger champions of Pharisaism, bore a leading part in the discussions which here took place. He was now, though still "a young man" (Acts 7:58), yet no longer in the first opening of youth. This is evident from the fact that he was appointed to an important ecclesiastical and political office immediately afterwards. Such an appointment he could hardly have received from the Sanhedrin before the age of thirty, and probably not so early; for we must remember that a peculiar respect for seniority distinguished the Rabbinical authorities. We can imagine Saul, then, the foremost in the Cilician Synagogue, "disputing" against the new doctrines of the Hellenistic Deacon, in all the energy of vigorous manhood, and with all the vehement logic of the Rabbis. How often must these scenes have been recalled to his mind, when he himself took the place of Stephen in many a Synagogue, and bore the brunt of the like furious assault; surrounded by
"But when they saw the multitude, the Jews were filled with envy; and they spoke against the things proclaimed by Paul, and were contradicting and blaspheming." (Acts 13:45, HBFV)
But this clamor and these arguments were not sufficient to convince or intimidate Stephen. False witnesses were then suborned to accuse him of blasphemy against Moses and against God, - who asserted, when he was dragged before the Sanhedrin, that they had heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth should destroy the Temple, and change the Mosaic customs. It is evident, from the nature of this accusation, how remarkably his doctrine was an anticipation of Apostle Paul's. As a Hellenistic Jew, he was less entangled in the prejudices of Hebrew nationality than his Aramaic brethren; and he seems to have had a fuller understanding of the final intention of the Gospel than Peter and the Apostles had yet attained to. Not doubting the divinity of the Mosaic economy, and not faithless to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he yet saw that the time was coming, yea, then was, when the "true worshippers" should worship Him, not in the Temple only or in any one sacred spot, but everywhere throughout the earth, "in spirit and in truth:" and for this doctrine he was doomed to die.
When we speak of the Sanhedrin, we are brought into contact with an important controversy. It is much disputed whether it had at this period the power of inflicting death. On the one hand, we apparently find the existence of this power denied by the Jews themselves at the trial of our Lord; (John 18:31, 19:6) and, on the other, we apparently find it assumed and acted on in the case of Stephen. The Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, like the Areopagus at Athens, was the highest and most awful court of judicature, especially in matters that pertained to religion; but, like that Athenian tribunal, its real power gradually shrunk, though the reverence attached to its decisions remained. It probably assumed its systematic form under the second Hyrcanus; and it became a fixed institution in the Commonwealth under his sons, who would be glad to have their authority nominally limited, but really supported, by such a council. Under the Herods, and under the Romans, its jurisdiction was curtailed; and we are informed, on Talmudical authority, that, forty years before the destruction of Jerusalem, it was formally deprived of the power of inflicting death. If this is true, we must consider the proceedings at the death of Stephen as tumultuous and irregular. And nothing is more probable than that Pontius Pilate (if indeed he was not absent at that time) would willingly connive, in the spirit of Gallio at Corinth, at an act of unauthorized cruelty in "a question of words and names and of the Jewish law," (Acts 18:15) and that the Jews would willingly assume as much power as they dared, when the honor of Moses and the Temple was in jeopardy.
The council assembled in solemn and formal state to try the blasphemer. There was great and general excitement in Jerusalem. "The people, the scribes, and the elders" had been "stirred up" by the members of the Hellenistic Synagogues. (Acts 6:12) It is evident, from that vivid expression which is quoted from the accusers’ mouths, - "this place" - this holy place" - that the meeting of the Sanhedrin took place in the close neighborhood of the Temple. Their ancient and solemn room of assembly was the hall Gazith, or the "Stone-Chamber," partly within the Temple Court and partly without it. The president sat in the less sacred portion, and around him, in a semicircle, were the rest of the seventy judges.
Before these judges Stephen was made to stand, confronted by his accusers. The eyes of all were fixed upon his countenance, which grew bright, as they gazed on it, with a supernatural radiance and serenity. In the beautiful Jewish expression of the Scripture, "They saw his face as it had been that of an angel." The judges, when they saw his glorified countenance, might have remembered the shining on the face of Moses, and trembled lest Stephen’s voice should be about to speak the will of Jehovah, like that of the great lawgiver. Instead of being occupied with the faded glories of the Second Temple, they might have recognized in the spectacle before them the Shechinah of the Christian soul, which is the living Sanctuary of God. But the trial proceeded. The judicial question, to which the accused was required to plead, was put by the president:"Are these things so?" And then Stephen answered; and his clear voice was heard in the silent council-hall, as he went through the history of the chosen people, proving his own deep faith in the sacredness of the Jewish economy, but suggesting, here and there, that spiritual interpretation of it which had always been the true one, and the truth of which was now to be made manifest to all. He began, with a wise discretion, from the call of Abraham, and traveled historically in his argument through all the great stages of their national existence, - from Abraham to Joseph, - from Joseph to Moses, - from Moses to David and Solomon. And as he went on he selected and glanced at those points which made for his own cause. He showed that God’s blessing rested on the faith of Abraham, though he had "not so much as to set his foot on" in the land of promise (verse 5), on the piety of Joseph, though he was an exile in Egypt (verse 9), and on the holiness of the Burning Bush, though in the desert of Sinai (verse 30). He dwelt in detail on the Lawgiver, in such a way as to show his own unquestionable orthodoxy; but he quoted the promise concerning "the prophet like unto Moses" (verse 37), and reminded his hearers that the Law, in which they trusted, had not kept their forefathers from idolatry (verse 39, &c). And so he passed on to the Temple, which had so prominent a reference to the charge against him: and while he spoke of it, he alluded to the words of Solomon himself, (1Kings 8:27; 2Chronicles 3:6, 6:18) and of the prophet Isaiah, (Isaiah 66:1, 2) who denied that any temple "made with hands" could be the place of God’s highest worship. And thus far they listened to him. It was the story of the chosen people, to which every Jew listened with interest and pride.
It is remarkable, as we have said before, how completely Stephen is the forerunner of Apostle Paul, both in the form and the matter of this defense. His securing the attention of the Jews by adopting the historical method, is exactly what the Apostle did in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia. (Acts 13:16-22) His assertion of his attachment to the true principles of the Mosaic religion is exactly what was said to Agrippa:"I continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great, saying none other things than those which the prophets and Moses did say should come." (Acts 26:22) It is deeply interesting to think of Saul as listening to the martyr’s voice, as he anticipated those very arguments which he himself was destined to reiterate in synagogues and before kings. There is no reason to doubt that he was present, although he may not have been qualified to vote in the Sanhedrin. And it is evident, from the thoughts which occurred to him in his subsequent vision within the precincts of the Temple, how deep an impression Stephen’s death had left on his memory. And there are even verbal coincidences which may be traced between this address and Apostle Paul's speeches or writings. The words used by Stephen of the Temple call to mind those which were used at Athens. (Acts 17:24) When he speaks of the Law as received "by the disposition of angels," he anticipates a phrase in the Epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 3:19). His exclamation at the end, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart… who have received the law… and have not kept it," is only an indignant condensation of the argument in the Epistle to the Romans:
"Behold, you are called a Jew, and you yourself rest in the law, and boast in God, And know His will, and approve of the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law; And are persuaded that you yourself are a guide of the blind, a light for those in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of the knowledge and of the truth contained in the law. You, then, who are teaching another, do you not teach yourself also? You who preach, 'Do not steal,' are you stealing? You who say, 'Do not commit adultery,' are you committing adultery? You who abhor idols, are you committing sacrilege? You who boast in law, are you dishonoring God through your transgression of the law? For through you the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles, exactly as it is written.
"For on the one hand, circumcision profits if you are observing the law; on the other hand, if you are a transgressor of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if the uncircumcised is keeping the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision? And shall not the uncircumcised, who by nature is fulfilling the law, judge you, who, with the letter and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is external in the flesh; Rather, he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart, in the spirit and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God." (Romans 2:17-29, HBFV)
The rebuke which Stephen, full of the Divine Spirit, suddenly broke away from the course of his narrative to pronounce, was the signal for a general outburst of furious rage on the part of his judges. They "gnashed on him with their teeth" in the same spirit in which they had said, not long before, to the blind man who was healed - "Thou wast altogether born in sins, and dost thou teach us?" (John 9:34) But, in contrast with the malignant hatred which had blinded their eyes, Stephen’s serene faith was supernaturally exalted into a direct vision of the blessedness of the Redeemed. He, whose face had been like that of an angel on earth, was made like one of those angels themselves, "who do always behold the face of our Father which is in Heaven." (Matthew 18:10) "He being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into Heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." The scene before his eyes was no longer the council-hall at Jerusalem and the circle of his infuriated judges; but he gazed up into the endless courts of the celestial Jerusalem, with its "innumerable company of angels," and saw Jesus, in whose righteous cause he was about to die. In other places, where our Savior is spoken of in His glorified state, He is said to be, not standing, but seated, at the right hand of the Father. (As in Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12: 2; compare Romans 8:34, and 1Peter 3:22) Here alone He is said to be standing. It is as if (according to Chrysostom’s beautiful thought) He had risen from His throne, to succor His persecuted servant, and to receive him to Himself. And when Stephen saw his Lord - perhaps with the memories of what he had seen on earth crowding into his mind, - he suddenly exclaimed, in the ecstasy of his vision:"Behold! I see the Heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!"
This was too much for the Jews to bear. The blasphemy of Jesus had been repeated. The follower of Jesus was hurried to destruction. "They cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord." It is evident that it was a savage and disorderly condemnation. They dragged him out of the council-hall, and, making a sudden rush and tumult through the streets, hurried him to one of the gates of the city, - and somewhere about the rocky edges of the ravine of Jehoshaphat, where the Mount of Olives looks down upon Gethsemane and Siloam, or on the open ground to the north, which travelers cross when they go towards Samaria or Damascus, - with stones that lay without the walls of the Holy City, this heavenly-minded martyr was murdered. The exact place of his death is not known. There are two traditions, - an ancient one, which places it on the north, beyond the Damascus gate; and a modern one, which leads travelers through what is now called the gate of Stephen, to a spot near the brook Kedron, over against the garden of Gethsemane. But those who look upon Jerusalem from an elevated point on the north-east, have both these positions in view; and any one who stood there on that day might have seen the crowd rush forth from the gate, and the witnesses (who according to the law were required to throw the first stones ) cast off their outer garments, and lay them down at the feet of Saul.
"And Saul was consenting to his death." A Spanish painter, in a picture of Stephen conducted to the place of execution, has represented Saul as walking by the martyr’s side with melancholy calmness. He consents to his death from a sincere, though mistaken, conviction of duty; and the expression of his countenance is strongly contrasted with the rage of the baffled Jewish doctors and the ferocity of the crowd who flock to the scene of bloodshed. Literally considered, such a representation is scarcely consistent either with Saul’s conduct immediately afterwards, or with his own expressions concerning himself at the later periods of his life. (See Acts 22:4, 26:10; Philippians 3:6; 1Timothy 1:13) But the picture, though historically incorrect, is poetically true. The painter has worked according to the true idea of his art in throwing upon the persecutor’s countenance the shadow of his coming repentance. We cannot dissociate the martyrdom of Stephen from the conversion of Paul.
To us who have the experience of many centuries of Christian history, and who can look back, through a long series of martyrdoms, to this, which was the beginning and example of the rest, these thoughts are easy and obvious; but to the friends and associates of the murdered Saint, such feelings of cheerful and confident assurance were perhaps more difficult. Though Christ was indeed risen from the dead, His disciples could hardly yet be able to realize the full triumph of the Cross over death. Even many years afterwards, Paul the Apostle wrote to the Thessalonians, concerning those who had "fallen asleep" (1Thessalonians 4:13. See Acts 7:60) more peaceably than Stephen, that they ought not to sorrow for them as those without hope; and now, at the very beginning of the Gospel, the grief of the Christians must have been great indeed, when the corpse of their champion and their brother lay at the feet of Saul the murderer. Yet, amidst the consternation of some and the fury of others, friends of the martyr were found, who gave him all the melancholy honors of a Jewish funeral, and carefully buried him, as Joseph buried his father, "with great and sore lamentation." (See Genesis 50:10)