May 24 – Stephen: Godliness in Suffering

“But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”

Acts 7:55


Because Stephen was so consistently Spirit–filled, it was natural for him to react in a godly way to persecution and death.

The cliché “Garbage in, garbage out” provides a good clue to the essence of the Spirit–filled Christian life. Just as computers respond according to their programming, we respond to what fills our minds. If we allow the Holy Spirit to program our thought patterns, we’ll be controlled and renewed by Him and live godly lives. And that’s exactly how Stephen consistently and daily lived his life.

The expression “being full” is from a Greek verb (pleroo) that literally means “being kept full.” Stephen was continuously filled with the Holy Spirit during his entire Christian life. This previewed Paul’s directive in Ephesians 5:18, “but be filled with the Spirit.” These words don’t mean believers are to have some strange mystical experience, but simply that their lives ought to be fully controlled by God’s Spirit.

Stephen gave evidence of his Spirit–filled godliness as He was about to die from stoning. Acts 7:55–56 says he looked to Jesus and let his adversaries and any witnesses know that he saw Christ standing at the right hand of God. Stephen did not focus on his difficult situation but fixed his heart on the Lord, which is what all believers must do: “Keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1–2).

Stephen’s spiritual sight was incredible and enabled him to see the risen Christ and be certain of his welcome into Heaven the moment he died. We won’t have that kind of vision while we’re still on earth, but if we are constantly Spirit–filled like Stephen, we will always see Jesus by faith and realize His complete presence during the most trying times (John 14:26–27; Heb. 13:5–6).


Suggestions for Prayer: Pray that God would direct your mind away from mundane distractions and toward Him throughout this day.

For Further Study: Stephen established a magnificent pattern during his short ministry in Acts 6. Read that chapter, and jot down several positive things you see about how he did things.[1]

  1. But Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and looked intently into heaven. He saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56. He said, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

Observe these points:

  • Faith. Amid the storm lashing the hall of the Sanhedrin, Stephen appears to be an island of serenity. Once again Luke reports that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit (see 6:5, 10), who now causes him to look heaven-ward. Incidentally, Luke employs the same words for the phrase to look intently into heaven as he used to describe the apostles looking toward the sky at the time Jesus ascended (1:10).

Stephen is permitted to see God’s glory, not in a vision, but in reality. At the beginning of the trial Stephen’s face had a heavenly glow like the face of an angel (6:15). At the conclusion of the trial he sees God’s glory. Although Scripture asserts that no one is able to see God and live, God’s glory has often been revealed to man (compare Ps. 63:2; Isa. 6:1; John 12:41).

In addition to observing God’s glory, Stephen sees Jesus standing, not sitting, at the right hand of God. We do not need to make much of the possible difference between standing and sitting. The standing position possibly denotes that Jesus is welcoming Stephen to heaven (see 1 Kings 2:19). The expression “at the right hand of God” refers to the highest honor given to Jesus at the time of his ascension.

Stephen’s trial resembles that of Jesus. When Jesus stood trial before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asked him whether he was the Son of God. Jesus answered in the affirmative and added that his audience would see “the Son of man sitting at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64; see also Heb. 1:3, 13).

  • Fulfillment. “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen is inviting his audience to look up to heaven and see Jesus in person at his place of honor. He calls Jesus “the Son of man,” which is the title Jesus used exclusively for himself to reveal that he fulfilled the messianic prophecy that speaks about the rule of the Son of man (Dan. 7:13–14). According to the Gospel accounts, people never refer to or address Jesus by that name. Stephen’s remark is the exception to that practice. Why does he use this title? Because Stephen fully recognizes that Jesus as the Son of man has fulfilled the messianic prophecy (Dan. 7:13–14) and has been given all authority, power, and dominion in both heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18)
  • Effect. The effect of Stephen’s invitation to look into heaven is not one of wonder and reverential fear on the part of the Sanhedrists but one of anger and hate. The Jews regard Stephen’s words as blasphemy. Just as the high priest at Jesus’ trial tore his priestly garments and cried out, “He has blasphemed” (Matt. 26:65), so the members of the Sanhedrin deem Stephen to have blasphemed the name of God. In view of their Hebrew creed, “Hear, O Israel! the Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4), Stephen no longer teaches monotheism. When Stephen says that he sees Jesus standing next to God, they bear him say that Jesus is God. Therefore, Stephen is a blasphemer.

In conformity with the law of Moses, anyone who blasphemes the name of God must be put to death; the members of the assembly must throw stones at him so that he dies (Lev. 24:16). In short, the members of Israel’s supreme court say that the charges of blasphemy, which the Hellenistic Jews have brought against Stephen, are proven to be true now that Stephen claims that Jesus is God.

  • Heaven. Where is heaven? If we visualize Stephen standing in the hall of the Sanhedrin, he would not have been able to look up into the sky. The text gives no indication that the meeting had moved outdoors at this point. How do we explain the appearance of Jesus to Stephen? God opened Stephen’s eyes so that he could see heaven and gave him the ability to view heaven as if it were in proximity to Stephen. Somewhat of a parallel is Paul’s conversion experience on the way to Damascus. Paul heard Jesus’ voice but his companions heard only sound (9:7; also compare 2 Kings 6:17). Heaven, then, is up and around us in a dimension that we are unable to see. When God opens the eyes of believers, as some Christians experience on their deathbed, he permits them to look into heaven.[2]

A Spirit-filled believer keeps “seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). In the midst of his circumstances, Stephen gazed intently into heaven. He was looking for Jesus (cf. 1:10, 11), and he did not look in vain. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen was one of the few in Scripture blessed with a glimpse into heaven, along with Isaiah (Isa. 6:1–3), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:26–28), Paul (2 Cor. 12:2–4), and John (Rev. 4:1ff.). God opened Stephen’s eyes to see the blazing Shekinah glory that revealed the presence of God the Father, with Jesus standing at His right hand. To him was granted the privilege of being the first to see Jesus (Before Paul and John) in His glorified state after His ascension.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is described as being seated at the right hand of God (Matt. 22:44; 24:64; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:11–12; 12:2). He is seated in terms of His redemptive work, which is forever completed (Heb. 10:12). Stephen sees Jesus standing to show His concern for him. He also stands to welcome Stephen into heaven.

So enthralled was Stephen with his beatific vision that he burst out, Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. For the Sanhedrin, such a statement was the last straw, their tolerance for this blasphemer was exhausted. Stephen’s use of the phrase Son of Man may have been the sharpest dagger, because it took them back to the trial of another prisoner. Like Stephen, Jesus was accused of blasphemy by false witnesses, yet He kept silent. Finally, in frustration, the high priest demanded that He speak: “ ‘I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven’ ” (Matt. 26:63–64). For that so-called blasphemy of claiming to be the Son of God and Son of Man who would sit on God’s right hand, they had executed Jesus. Stephen’s vision and words describing who he saw throws that claim Jesus made right back in their faces. Jesus claimed He would be at the right hand of God; Stephen now asserts that He is there! They must either execute Stephen too or admit they were wrong when they had Jesus murdered.[3]

55–56 While the content and tone of his address infuriated the council, Stephen’s solemn pronouncement as he was dying raised again the specter of blasphemy and brought his hearers to a frenzied pitch: “Look,” he announced, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56). Only a few years before, Jesus had stood before this same tribunal and was condemned for answering affirmatively the high priest’s question about his being Israel’s Messiah and for saying of himself, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). Now Stephen was saying, in effect, that his vision confirmed Jesus’ claim and condemned the council for having rejected him. Unless the council members were prepared to repent and admit their awful error, they had no option but to find Stephen also guilty of blasphemy. Had he been judged only an impertinent apostate (cf. 5:40), the thirty-nine lashes of Jewish punishment would have been appropriate (cf. m. Mak. 3:10–15a). To be openly blasphemous before the council, however, was a matter that demanded his death.

Luke’s description of Stephen as “full of the Holy Spirit” (v. 55) is in line with his characterizations of him in ch. 6 (vv. 3, 5, 8, 15). The identification of Jesus as “the Son of Man” is used outside the Gospels only here and at Revelation 1:13; 14:14 (cf. Heb 2:6, though probably not as a christological title but as a locution for “man” in line with Ps 8:4). In the canonical gospels Jesus alone is portrayed as having used “Son of Man” with reference to himself (the apparent exceptions in Lk 24:7 and Jn 12:34 are, in actuality, only echoes of Jesus’ usage). Jesus used the expression both as a locution for the pronoun “I” and as a titular image reflecting the usage in Daniel 7:13–28 (esp. vv. 13–14). As a title it carries the ideas of (1) identification with mankind and suffering and (2) vindication by God and glory. The title was generally not attributed to Jesus by the church between the time when his sufferings were completed and when he would assume his full glory. Here, however, an anticipation of Jesus’ full glory is set within a martyr context (as also at Rev 1:13; 14:14); and so the use of “Son of Man” as a title for Jesus is fully appropriate.

The juxtaposition of “the glory of God” and the name of Jesus in Stephen’s vision, together with his saying that he sees “heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” are christologically significant. Unlike the Greek understanding of doxa (“glory”) as akin to “opinion,” the Hebrew OT and Greek LXX viewed “the glory of God” (Heb. kebôd YHWH; Gr. doxa theou) as “the manifestation or revelation of the divine nature” and even as “the divine mode of being” itself (cf. TDNT 2.233–47). The bringing together of “the glory of God” and the name of Jesus, therefore, suggests something about Jesus’ person as the manifestation of the divine nature and the divine mode of being. Likewise, inasmuch as God dwells in the highest heaven, the open heaven with Jesus at God’s right hand suggests something about his work as providing access into the very presence of God.

Stephen’s reference to Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God, which differs from the “sitting” of Psalm 110:1 (the passage alluded to here), has been variously understood. Dalman (Words of Jesus, 311) argued that it is merely “a verbal change,” for both the perfect infinitive estanai (“to stand,” GK 2705) and the present infinitive kathēsthai (“to sit,” GK 2767) connote the idea “to be situated” (Heb. ʿamād), without any necessary implication for the configuration of posture. The majority of commentators, however, have interpreted “standing” to suggest Jesus’ welcome of his martyred follower, who like the repentant criminal of Luke 23:43 was received into heaven the moment he died. Dispensational commentators have taken Stephen’s reference to Jesus’ “standing” as supporting their view that the distinctive redemptive message for this age was not proclaimed until the Pauline gospel (either at its inauguration, its close, or somewhere in between), and so in the transitional period between Israel and the church Jesus is represented as not yet having taken his seat at God’s right hand. Others speak of Jesus as “standing” in order to enter his messianic office on earth or as “standing” in the presence of God, in line with the common representation of angels in God’s presence.

More likely, however, the concept of “witness” is what is primarily highlighted in the portrayal of Jesus as “standing” at Stephen’s martyrdom. F. F. Bruce, 168, has aptly noted that “Stephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing His servant before God. The proper posture for a witness is the standing posture. Stephen, condemned by an earthly court, appeals for vindication to a heavenly court, and his vindicator in that supreme court is Jesus, who stands at God’s right hand as Stephen’s advocate, his ‘paraclete.’ ” Yet in accepting such an interpretation, one does well to keep Bruce’s further comment, 168–69, in mind:

When we are faced with words so wealthy in association as these words of Stephen, it is unwise to suppose that any single interpretation exhausts their significance. All the meaning that had attached to Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13f. is present here, including especially the meaning that springs from their combination on the lips of Jesus when He appeared before the Sanhedrin; but the replacement of “sitting” by “standing” probably makes its own contribution to the total meaning of the words in this context—a contribution distinctively appropriate to Stephen’s present role as martyr-witness.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 278–279). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[3] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (pp. 221–222). Chicago: Moody Press.

[4] Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 829–831). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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