“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 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; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:54-60).
“Now when they heard this,” that is, the whole of Stephen’s defense of Christ and God’s judgment against the people, “they were cut to the quick.” Literally, “they were sawn asunder to the heart,” just as they were in Acts 5:33. Absent the grace of God, they were agitated, stirred to anger and boiled with animosity. Only this time, there was no one to restrain them. They carried out the murder that was in their hearts according to their natures.
We like to think that we are free, but we are only free within the limits of our nature. Even the good we do is tainted by our sin. Thus, Jesus taught that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:17). Likewise, Paul wrote, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1Cor. 2:14). So, in the darkness of their hearts, they lunged for Stephen, as jackals on the prey. “They began gnashing their teeth at him,” growling with hellish hatred.
The Spirit filled Stephen, showing him God’s glory and Jesus standing (the royal position of judgment) at His right hand. God gives His people grace to withstand great anguish. The world labors in vain to understand the gift of grace that often attends God’s children as they stand in the torrent of hell’s abuse. His peace certainly passes all human understanding. Even Christ’s disciples are often mystified by God’s overwhelming grace when they should cave before the flood of hostility heaped against them. And yet, Stephen “said,” that is, he spoke in an ordinary voice, not screaming hysterically as his plaintiffs did, and continued to make much of Christ: “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen’s accusers could bear no more of his love for Christ. Their hatred for Jesus drove them over the edge like the demon-possessed Gadarene pigs. Even though he used the more obscure term that Jesus favored for Himself, “Son of Man,” they all knew of Whom he meant. In a single, murderous reflex, propelled by bestial rage, they pounced on him and drove him out of the city gate where they began to stone him. The stones they cast weren’t little pebbles intended to irritate him. They were large enough to inflict serious damage, even to be fatal.
As an aside, Luke mentioned, without comment, a young man named Saul, whom readers would get to know later. Saul stood by, approving the slaughter of an innocent man, solely because of his faith in, love for, and witness to Christ.
The stoning of Stephen was no simple or sanitary procedure. Without delving into the gory details of stoning, suffice it to say that it was an inefficient form of execution – bloody and cruel, it took a good while to accomplish.
Even as his life ebbed away, Stephen displayed God’s grace in the torrent. He committed himself to the Lord Jesus as Christ had committed Himself to the Father. Then, he prayed for his murderers as Jesus had prayed for His.
Our natural tendency is to ask God to remove the hardship. The popular notion is that we should have all the treats and sweets we want and none of the bitters. If we just have enough faith, God will give us all the cookies we ask for. The Bible teaches us, though, that God is eternal, wise, and holy. He operates in a different economy than we do, He keeps a different timeline, and He pursues a different agenda than ours.
Perhaps, instead of seeking the removal of the trial, we should seek the grace to see God’s glory through the hurt. I’m daily more convinced that there’s coming another persecution in the life of the church. It might even be the final chapter in our history. I pray we’ll be ready.