Lord, do not charge them with this sin.
We live in a day when Christianity is becoming increasingly unpopular with secular society. Strong stands for the truth of Scripture and the gospel message may soon become intolerable. That will result in the unjust treatment of Christians.
The prospect of such treatment ought to drive us to passages like 1 Peter 2:21–25 for reassurance. There we learn that like our Lord, we are to walk the path of suffering to attain the glory of reward and exaltation in the future. That realization surely prompted Stephen to fix his eyes on Jesus in glory and ask God to forgive his murderers (Acts 7:54–60). He entrusted Himself to God, knowing that He would vindicate him. If you do the same, God will also vindicate you.
The mob poured out their hatred on Stephen by stoning him mercilessly. His heart, in contrast, was filled only with love for them. Amid the flying stones, Stephen fell on his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” As had his beloved Lord before him, Stephen pleaded for God’s forgiveness on behalf of his executioners. He was praying for their salvation, since that is the only way God forgives sin. The death of the prophet Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, provides an instructive comparison. Second Chronicles 24:20–22 describes his murder:
Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus God has said, ‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord and do not prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, He has also forsaken you.’ ” So they conspired against him and at the command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness which his father Jehoiada had shown him, but he murdered his son. And as he died he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”
Like Stephen, Zechariah was unjustly put to death. Unlike Stephen, however, his dying prayer was for justice and vengeance, not forgiveness.
Only Christians can love as Stephen did, “because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5).
Having finished his petition, Stephen fell asleep. Peacefully, calmly he slipped into the presence of his Lord. Unquestionably, his Master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful slave … enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). Sleep is a lovely way to describe the death of a believer. It is painless and temporary and takes one from the experience of weariness, work, and consciousness of all the problems of life to the freshness of a new day (cf. John 11:11–12; 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:14; 5:10).
59–60 As Stephen was being stoned (note the imperfect verb elithoboloun, “they were stoning” [GK 3344], which suggests a process), he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” The cries are reminiscent of Jesus’ words from the cross (Lk 23:34, 46), though the sequence and wording are not exactly the same. It is probably going too far to say that Luke meant Stephen’s execution to be a reenactment of the first great martyrdom, that of Jesus, as many commentators have proposed (so C. H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics [Nashville: Abingdon, 1966], 76). The parallelism, however, can hardly be seen as simply inadvertent. It was probably included to show that the same spirit of commitment and forgiveness that characterized Jesus’ life and death was true as well of his earliest followers.
The expression “fall asleep” (koimaō, GK 3121) is a common biblical way of referring to the death of God’s own (cf. Ge 47:30 [LXX]; Dt 31:16 [LXX]; Jn 11:11; Ac 13:36; 1 Co 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 51; 2 Pe 3:4). While the nuances of a doctrine of “soul sleep” are incompatible with the biblical message, the word “sleep” suggests something as to the nature of the believer’s personal existence during that period of time theologians call “the intermediate state.”
In comparing Stephen’s death to that of a Stoic philosopher, Oscar Cullmann (Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? [London: Epworth, 1958], 60) made this apt observation:
The Stoic departed this life dispassionately; the Christian martyr on the other hand died with spirited passion for the cause of Christ, because he knew that by doing so he stood within a powerful redemptive process. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, shows us how very differently death is bested by him who dies in Christ than by the ancient philosopher: he sees, it is said, “the heavens open and Christ standing at the right hand of God!” He sees Christ, the Conqueror of Death. With this faith that the death he must undergo is already conquered by Him who has Himself endured it, Stephen lets himself be stoned.
7:54–60 As soon as Stephen bore public testimony to seeing the heavens opened, the mob refused to listen to him further; they cried fiercely, charged upon him, dragged him outside the city walls and stoned him.
As if incidentally, the Spirit records the name of a young man who stood guard over the clothes of the perspiring executioners. The name was Saul. It is as if the Spirit would say to us, “Remember that name. You will hear it again!”
Stephen’s death resembled that of our Lord:
- He prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (v. 59). Jesus had prayed, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).
- He prayed, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (v. 60). Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
Does it not suggest that through occupation with the Lord, Stephen had been “transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18)?
Then, having prayed, he fell asleep. When the word “sleep” is used in connection with death in the NT, it refers to the body, not the soul. The believer’s soul goes to be with Christ at the time of death (2 Cor. 5:8); the body is pictured as sleeping.
Ordinarily the Jews were not allowed to carry out the death penalty; this was reserved for their Roman overlords (John 18:31b). But the Romans seem to have made an exception when the temple was threatened. Stephen had been accused of speaking against the temple, and though the charge was unfounded, he was executed by the Jews. The Lord Jesus had been accused of threatening to destroy the temple (Mark 14:58), but the testimony of the witnesses conflicted.
 MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 109). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (pp. 224–225). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, p. 832). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1604). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.