Stephen, Session #19 (All quotes generally ESV)
STEPHEN SAW THE HEAVENS OPENED
Acts 7:56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened….” In Greek: “Ἰδοὺ θεωρῶ τοὺς οὐρανοὺς διηνοιγμένους.”
Two things to look for here: 1) The verb “to see” in Greek (θεωρῶ) is important, as it means “to be a spectator, to see something spectacular with your own eyes.” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 5:315, lists eighteen different Greek words for seeing, and they all mean something slightly different. In this case, the word indicates that Stephen is not “having a vision” but sees a very spectacular scene as an eye witness! Being a present tense, we might well translate this as “I am witnessing….” Or “I am seeing….” But the Greek present is not like the English present tense. The Greek is saying that Stephen is linked intensively to the action itself. It is a part of him, almost consuming him!
2) the other verb in this sentence is also important, διηνοιγμένους, a perfect passive participle. The “passive” form tells us that Stephen is NOT looking into heaven, but in a real sense heaven is looking at him! God is the one performing this action for the comfort and instruction of Stephen. The perfect tense in Greek does not tell us so much that an event has happened as to emphasize what that event means. Yes, the heavens have opened, but what are the consequences for Stephen? Stephen knows that he is about to die, and God in His mercy has opened heaven’s door, so to speak, and is letting Stephen know what awaits him on the other side! For this reason, the perfect passive participle here can be translated as a present, “the heavens are being opened,” because it is the result of the opening that is being emphasized.
Stephen is saying “This is not a vision—this is real! And God is showing me the way home.” There is no mention of “the clouds of heaven.” That would be a subtle reference to Judgment Day. This is real. This is now. And, thanks to God, this is all his!
The above section is just a sample of what can be found in the verses of Scripture if we just look! (That’s why I don’t do “six chapters per week” Bible Classes!)
STEPHEN’S SAW JESUS STANDING
Acts 7:56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. For Yahweh will judge his people”
Why is Jesus standing? Our normal Christian expression is that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of God the Father” (Nicene Creed). Being seated at the right hand is thought to be an image of power, exaltation, honor, etc.
A variety of suggestions about Jesus standing position have been forthcoming. Is this a reflection of Daniel 7:13-14? “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (NIV) That doesn’t really say that Jesus is “standing” before God, although many have claimed that this is the idea of Acts 7.
It is suggested that the apocryphal book of 2 Enoch holds a key because it tells us about Enoch—the man who never died and was taken into heaven (Genesis 4:17)—who had the privilege of standing before God forever: 2 Enoch 22:4-5 “And I fell flat on my face and bowed down to the Lord, and the Lord with his lips said to me: Have courage, Enoch, do not fear, arise and stand before my face into eternity.”
In the Old Testament, Deut. 5:31 says that Moses was ordered to stand before God AND Jesus is surely the “prophet like Moses” promised to come from God, so he ought to be standing before God like Moses: “But you, stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land that I am giving them to possess.”
Yes, all these suggestions are “pretty thin” aren’t they? Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion is that in Samaritan and rabbinic literature a standing posture was generally indicative of the celestial being. The Memar Marqah 4:12 (the Samaritan commentary on the Old Testament) points to Moses as “the Standing One.” “A Restorer [Taheb] will come in peace;he will rule the places of the perfect and reveal the Truth. Heed and hear! Stand in Truth! Clear your arguments!” Martin Scharlemann says, page 15 of his book, Stephen: A Singular Saint, that it was Moses’ job to intercede for people at Judgment Day in what the Samaritans called “The Standing.”
If Jesus is to the Samaritans “the new Moses,” it is then his job to stand before God and plead for the souls of sinners. Is this why Stephen saw Jesus standing? We may never know.
WHO WAS STEPHEN?
Was Stephen a Samaritan? It appears he was not. He repeatedly told the Jews that the Samaritans were more often right than wrong about God’s designs for His people. But Stephen is too steeped in the entire Old Testament to be a Samaritan. He had been exposed to their way of thinking, and he used it often to see God’s Word in a new light.
Was Stephen a Greek? We can say that he absolutely was not. While he speaks Greek and uses the Greek Old Testament as his version of the Bible, he clearly points out that the history of the Jewish people is “our” history, “our” forefathers, etc.
Was Stephen a Hellenist? If the definition of “Hellenist” is a Jew who has adopted Greek language and culture as a lifestyle but still maintains his faith in the promises of the entire Old Testament—the law and the prophets, then yes, he was a Hellenist.
But, more than a Hellenist, Stephen spoke a theology that had not been heard before, a theology that said “The Samaritans are our brothers and we need to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them.” It is this evangelical emphasis which causes Luke to include Stephen’s speech. It is time for the Good News to spread its wings to the world!
Stephen’s words got him killed. He will always be known as the Christian Church’s first martyr. To be sure, many more martyrs are coming. But most of them will be killed for worshiping Jesus Christ as our Savior, and it will be the Romans who do the killing.
Stephen wasn’t killed by the Romans, and he wasn’t killed for saying that Jesus Christ is our Savior. Stephen was killed for saying “Unless you intractable fellow-Jews give up your worship of the Temple and start listening to what God has to say, God will reject you as His children.”
Where did he get this idea? No one else spoke like this! Was he the second man on the road to Emmaus the first Easter morning? Did Jesus teach him and Cleopas what the Old Testament was really all about?
There is no proof that Stephen was that second man, but it seems reasonable. I guess we can always ask Stephen when we join him in heaven!