Yesterday in my New Testament 2 class taught by Dr. Thomas Schreiner* we discussed Stephen’s speech before his martyrdom in Acts 7. I have to be honest in that I typically skim over his speech thinking that it is simply Old Testament history that I am already informed of. As we went over the heart of this speech in class not only this text but Paul’s conversion took on a new life for me.
In Acts 6 we read of what Stephen is being accused of:
We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God…This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place 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.
The principle charges against Stephen is that he is going against the Law and the temple. Then Stephen gives his defense. Why an Old Testament history lesson? In these particular stories Stephen is pointing out a few key things. First of all he is pointing out that God does not need the land and that God does not need the temple. Furthermore, he is pointing out that it is fitting to the history of Israel that they reject the one that is God’s agent of redemption. In other words what they are doing to Stephen and the other apostles is the same thing that has always happened: you think you are serving God but you are really blind to God’s working of redemption. Hence his concluding point:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.
Now after this speech they are enraged and Stephen adds fuel to the fire by pretty much saying “I see Jesus standing up and pleading my case and not yours”. Then they cast him out of the city and began to stone him. And it is quite possible, because the text says “the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul”, that he is the ring leader of this entire mob. We know it had a dramatic effect on him because he mentions it again in Acts 22:20.
After Stephen’s stoning we are introduced to Saul who is, “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison”. Saul is quite confident that he is on a mission from God to stamp out all of these God-hating Christians. But something happens in Acts 9: Saul (later called Paul) is confronted by Jesus.
In one climactic moment it is revealed to Saul that he is guilty of what Stephen had accused him of. Rather than being God’s instrument of truth he was rather the one that was responsible for killing God’s instrument of redemption.
What do we learn from this? It is quite possible to think that you are “helping out God” but all the while be stifling His agent(s) of redemption.
*By way of note, this blog post is not what Dr. Schreiner said in class. It is simply my attempt at further understanding the connection between Stephen’s speech and Paul’s conversion. If something is wrong or I butcher a text the blame lays squarely on me and not Dr. Schreiner.