Stephen, Session #18 (All quotes generally ESV)
THE GUILT OF THE TEMPLE CULT AND ITS LEADERS
Acts 7:52 “They killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One.” First, we must ask who are “they?” A careful comparison of Luke’s Gospel account on the road to Emmaus with Stephen’s speech is informative. In Luke 24:19-20 we read these words exchanged between Jesus, Cleopas and “The Unnamed Other Guy”: “And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.”
Luke does not point to “the scribes and the Pharisees” as guilty, but to the “chief priests and rulers.” Now look at Acts 6:12 “they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council” and Acts 7:1 “And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” It is the SAME group who condemned Jesus and who then condemn Stephen. Is this significant? Yes. Luke is saying, pretty subtly, that it is the official cult of the Temple which has come between God and his people. Both Stephen and Jesus are accused of speaking against the Temple. Someone has to speak up—the Temple and the entire cult of priests, sacrifice, money, and law-keeping is the problem!
TWICE Luke tells us that Stephen was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Luke 6:5 “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” and 7:55 “ But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven.” Stephen is telling the truth—he is speaking for God as the prophets did. He is making the same charge against the cult as Jesus did at His trial! The Christian Church, never the High Priest and the ruling council, has become the mouthpiece of God’s word.
In the midst of this charge, Stephen repeats what Jesus had said: “You leaders are guilty of misleading the people, ignoring God’s designs, and killing everyone who disagrees with you.”
Remember the Parable of the Vineyard, where the evil tenants “beat up” everyone sent to them, and finally “killed the heir?” Jesus had predicted, not surprisingly reported by Luke in 20:15-16 “And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The Chief Priests and the council members got the message—they were furious!
The Jewish leaders always abuse and kill the prophets, and always in Jerusalem, because the prophets always attack their power, privilege and prestige. Now they’ve murdered God by crucifying Him outside the walls! Acts 7:52 “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” “Name ONE you didn’t abuse!” Years later, we hear in Hebrews 11:37 the echoes of this Jewish history: “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated….” Did Stephen get this condemnation of their abuse from Jesus himself on the road to Emmaus? It surely sounds like it.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF “THE RIGHTEOUS ONE”
Now back to Acts 7:52 “They killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One.”
To understand the significance of this unusual title, “the Righteous One,” we look to the Old Testament. Commentators have argued about the exact verse to which Stephen was referring. Perhaps he was referring to ALL these verses! Here are a few:
Isaiah 11:1-5 describes the coming of the Messiah from David’s lineage: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.”
This verse calls the Messiah “our Righteousness”: Jeremiah 23:5-6 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
A verse emphasizing the Messiah’s suffering: Isaiah 53:11 “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
The following may be the most exacting reference, but it is extremely subtle. The entire chapter needs to be read to understand it fully, but it is a condemnation of false prophets and of the priesthood and the Temple cult: Lamentations 4:13 “This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous” and 4:16 “The Lord himself has scattered them; he will regard them no more; no honor was shown to the priests, no favor to the elders.” (Remember that the Middle Eastern culture does not generally deal in “right and wrong” but in “honor and shame.” “No honor” means “shame on you!”)
The Samaritans elevated Moses to God-like status—quite beyond what even Judaism proclaimed. But remember that they were looking for a “prophet like Moses.” Here from their rabbinic commentary is another example of their religion: “Let’s attend to the Truth and trust in Yahweh, our Lord and our Maker; and also in Moses, our Prophet and Redeemer!” (Memar Marqah 2:10) There is no stretch in imaging that they were looking for “a Righteous One” who would save them in “great Mosaic fashion.”
Perhaps we need to look no farther for “the Righteous One” than Luke 23:47. Some translations are a bit loose, but here is the Greek: Ὄντως ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος ἦν (At the death of Jesus, these are the words of the Centurion, literally: “Surely this man was righteous!”)
The early Christian Church proclaimed Jesus as the Crucified, but they proclaimed it in the context that He did not deserve to die. He was righteous. Stephen didn’t make this up. Everyone knew he was righteous before the law. (And I John 2:1 proclaims “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus ChristThe Righteous.“
Matt. 27:24 At the trial of Jesus, Pilate says “I am innocent of this righteous man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” But “righteous” only appears in the Alexandrinus and Bezae manuscripts and a few minor ones. The church fathers perhaps wanted to emphasize that Jesus was “righteous.” But many places point to the righteousness of Christ.
“Righteous One” is fairly easy to explain. But WHY is Jesus STANDING? (v. 56)