Stephen is widely known as the first Christian martyr. He is mentioned initially as one of the seven servants who ministered to the Grecian widows in the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:1-6). These were Jews born outside of Palestine who frequently returned to the Holy Land in their declining years, to die and there, be buried.
Beyond the exercise of his benevolent talents, this servant of Christ also proclaimed the gospel and debated with the Jews in their synagogues (vv. 8-9). His militancy demonstrates that Christianity is not a passive system; it engages the opposition. It also, however, frequently arouses opposition, and such was the case in this instance. Hostile “witnesses” were solicited to bear false testimony against the courageous preacher in a malevolent plan to shut his mouth.
The leaders of the Sanhedrin, as well as the people generally, were aroused to a state of frenzy. They “rushed upon” the man of God and brought him before the assembled council. Testimony was given that Stephen spoke against the holy place (the temple) and the law. The evangelist was permitted to make his defense, the record of which is found in Acts 7. For a discussion of this presentation, see my Commentary on Acts (2005). Eventually, the Jews had heard enough. They were “cut to the heart” and in anger ground their teeth furiously (7:54).
Luke records that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit,” perhaps meaning he was emboldened by the Spirit. He was permitted to look into heaven where he saw a manifestation of divine glory, and Jesus “standing” nearby at God’s “right hand” (a unique expression). The courageous brother exclaimed: “Look, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (v. 56).
It is important to note that Christ is designated as “the Son of man” (v. 56), as well as “son of God” (cf. 9:20). Though back in heaven, the Savior has retained his identity with humanity (cf. Philippians 3:21; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 2:11). This is an important biblical truth. Christ’s authority to render final judgment is dependent upon his nature as “a son of man” (John 5:27).
The infuriated mob rushed him, dragged him from the city, and stoned him. This was no legal execution. It was a lynching! One important note: observing this bloody scene was a “young man named Saul” — who was “consenting” to the murder (v. 58b; 8:1a), a reality that later would hang over him like a dark cloud (Acts 22:20).
Stephen called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He humbly kneeled down and again exclaimed with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep (vv. 59-60 ESV). The prayer was brief, but remarkable from several vantage points.
(1) Luke states that Stephen was “calling upon” the Lord. The verb “call upon” (epikaleo) is a present tense, middle voice form in this passage. There are several points worthy of note:
- The term means to make a request; the context must determine its specific disposition. It clearly is a “prayer” (Mounce, 2006, 93). Campbell designated it as an “invocation” (1858, 51).
- The present tense suggests the petition was repeated.
- The middle voice reflects the intense personal need felt at this crucial moment, hence “to call upon for one’s self” (Thayer, 1958, 239).
- The term frequently is employed of an “appeal to God in prayer” as here (Kittel & Friedrich, 1985, 396).
- Several recent translations render the expression, “he was praying” (cf. NIV, Williams, Goodspeed, Weymouth, McCord, etc.).
The expression “Lord Jesus” is Stephen’s acknowledgement of the deity of Christ, and his Master’s authority. Both titles are in the vocative case, which means it is a direct address. It is “unquestionable” that Stephen is praying to Christ (Vincent, 1972, 240). Robertson wrote: “Stephen knelt before him in worship and called on him in prayer” (1930, 3.99). In his Commentary on Acts, H. Leo Boles, one time editor of the Gospel Advocate, referred to Stephen as “praying” to Christ no fewer than five times (1941, 120; cf. Milligan, 1957, 221, 379; Pack, 1977, 62). See also Jackson, Prayer to Christ elsewhere on this web site.
Note: Some allege it is wrong to utter a prayer to Christ today. They admit that Stephen prayed to the Savior, but what normally would be sinful was permitted on that occasion due to the supernatural nature of the vision. However, John was the recipient of supernatural revelations on Patmos, yet he was not granted an exemption to worship an angel (Revelation 22:8-9).
“Jehovah’s Witnesses” emphatically deny that prayer can be offered to Christ (Franz, 1971, 1329). Such reflects their repudiation of his deity. The manipulations of this text in the vain attempt to avoid the conclusion that this was an act of worship sacrifices every particle of exegetical credibility.
(2) The verb “receive” is a middle voice form (expressing self-need), and is in the imperative mood. The imperative in this case is a strong request—commonly used in prayers (Wallace, 1996, 488). The Greek term dechomai is unusual in that it has the lingering aroma of classical Greek, in the sense of “welcome” me (cf. Thayer, 1958, 131).
(3) The phrase “my spirit” is Stephen’s affirmation that there was a personal entity within his body capable of both emotion and intellect (Daniel 7:15; 1 Corinthians 2:11). That spirit, or soul (cf. Matthew 10:28), was about to make its exit to be with the Savior. This brave servant of Christ was no materialist, i.e., one who believes that man is wholly mortal, having nothing more than a fleshly composition powered by an impersonal “life force.” Likely he was reflecting upon what he had heard about the manner of Jesus’ death. The Lord had prayed: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Observe how the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” pervert this lofty truth — both in Luke’s Gospel and in this text in Acts.
“In view of the impersonal nature of the life force or spirit found in man (as also in the animal creation) it is evident that David’s statement at Psalm 31:5, quoted by Jesus at the time of his death (Luke 23:46), ‘Into your hand I entrust my spirit,’ meant that God was being called upon to guard or care for that one’s life force. (Compare Acts 7:59)” (Franz, et al., 1971, 1547; emp. added).
If the “spirit” is simply an “impersonal animal life force,” why not translate it that way — instead of “my spirit” (as reflected in the Watchtower’s New World Translation)? Was the death of Stephen no different from that of a dog? There is a common rule that prevails in defining words. The definition of a term may be substituted for the word itself in a sentence, and the sentence still will be rational. Consider a couple of passages in which the term “spirit” appears, and see how nonsensical the “Watchtower” definition becomes.
“[L]et us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and impersonal animal life force...” (2 Cor. 7:1). Or this: “the impersonal animal life force of Titus has been refreshed by you all.” (2 Cor. 7:13; cf. 1 Cor. 16:18). What’s wrong with these renditions? Everything; they make no sense. The Greek term pneuma, when used of that entity within a person, designates “the rational spirit, the power by which a human being feels, thinks, wills, decides; the soul” (Thayer, 1958, 520; cf. Danker, 2000, 833.3).
(4) When Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he had every expectation and eager longing that when his spirit took flight from his body it would go to be with Christ, just as the Lord himself anticipated going to the Father in his similar prayer (Luke 23:46). It is a mistake to conclude, as some have done, that there will be no fellowship with our Savior until after the Second Coming and the Resurrection. The New Testament does not support this view (cf. Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8).
(5) Finally Stephen’s request, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (v. 60), is also reminiscent of the Savior’s prayer: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He emulates the example of his Lord. This was not a call for unconditional pardon (cf. Acts 2:21, 38). It was a compassionate hope of their eventual conversion. See Paul’s later statement that he received “mercy” in conjunction with the events of his conversion (1 Tim. 1:13; Acts 22:16).
Luke’s narrative regarding the final words of the first Christian martyr is rich indeed. It is a magnificent illustration of how much truth can be packed into such a small area; also it demolishes a litany of theological errors with deadly precision.