Stephen is one of the most important characters in the story of Acts. Both his life and death are presented as important examples of living and dying like Jesus. Witherington explains how Luke’s rhetoric puts the spotlight on Stephen.
The introduction of Stephen in the list in 6:5 leads to somewhat lengthy presentation of the events that led to the end of his life. The very length of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, the longest in a book full of speeches, probably indicates something of the importance Luke assigned to this episode in the history of earliest Christianity. This story ends a series of three trials before the Sanhedrin chronicled in Acts 4–7, with escalating results (warning, flogging, and in this case death). There can be little doubt that Luke sees the death of Stephen as engendering a crisis for the earliest Christians and a turning point. For one thing, for the first time “the people” and not just the authorities become antagonistic toward the followers of Jesus. For another, the death of Stephen causes various of his fellow Christians to flee Jerusalem and persecution, which in turn leads to the evangelizing of other places. This in turn causes the focus of the story to begin to shift away from Jerusalem after Acts 8:1. Luke is concerned to show why the church developed and moved in the east-to-west direction that it did.
Stepehn’s death was important, also because his life served as a model for Christian service
V. 8 begins by informing us again of the personal characteristics and also the actions of Stephen—he was full of θαρις and power, and he performed great wonders and signs among the people. This description tells us that he was involved not only in the internal life of the Christian community (the administering of food distribution), but also in its external life and witness. The two depictions of Stephen’s roles in Acts 6 are not contradictory, but speak to tasks in two different spheres of action. As Barrett suggests, these men probably originally began “with the charitable work of the Jerusalem church but developed their Christian action beyond this so as to become a group of leaders not necessarily in opposition to but at least distinct from the Twelve.”
Witherington also demonstrates how Stephen’s death is a type of the death of Christ.
One of the overarching impressions of the material in Acts 6:8–8:3 is that Luke is deliberately writing this story to indicate how Stephen’s last days and end parallel those of his master, Jesus. Not only so, but Stephen is depicted as standing in an even longer line of holy figures including not only the later prophets but also especially Moses and even before him, Joseph. Like Joseph, Moses, and Jesus Stephen is full of grace and power and inspired words, and is depicted as someone of great character and stature—appropriate for the church’s first martyr. The parallels between the passion of Jesus and of Stephen need to be enumerated:
- Trial before high priest/Sanhedrin (Mark 14:53 and par./Acts 6:12; 7:1)
- False witnesses (Mark 14:56–57; Matt. 26:60–61; not in Luke/Acts 6:13)
- Testimony concerning the destruction of the temple (Mark 14:58; Matt. 26:61; not in Luke/Acts 6:14)
- Temple “made with hands” (Mark 14:58; not in Luke/Acts 7:48)
- Son of Man saying (Mark 14:62 and par./Acts 7:56)
- Charge of blasphemy (Mark 14:64, Matt. 26:65; not in Luke/Acts 6:11)
- High priest’s question (Mark 14:61; Matt. 26:63; not in Luke [cf. 22:67, “they”]/Acts 7:1)
- Committal of spirit (only in Luke 23:46/Acts 7:59)
- Cry out with a loud voice (Mark 15:34=Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:37 and par./Acts 7:60)
- Intercession for enemies forgiveness (only in Luke 23:34/Acts 7:60)
Two striking things need to be noted about this list of parallels. Two of the ten items are found only in Luke and Acts and nowhere else (nos. 8 and 10). Five of the ten items are found in Acts and in the other Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ death, but not in Luke’s Gospel. Here is compelling evidence that Luke had Acts in mind while writing his Gospel, and edited certain items out of his Markan source about Jesus’ Passion, but wrote up the Stephen story using language reminiscent of the Markan Passion account! The end result in any case is to highlight the close parallels between Stephen’s end and that of Jesus.
This last point he makes to compare the death of Steven to that of Christ reminds me of Paul’s statement in Colossians 1:24:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
I wonder, did Paul’s teaching influence how Luke recorded the death of Stephen as a type for what this passage is teaching?