Warriors and Martyrs
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"'You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your forefathers did, so do you. (52) Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. (53) You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.' (54) When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. (55) But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God's glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, (56) 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' (57) Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him. (58) They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (59) They were stoning Stephen as he called out: 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!' (60) Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not charge them with this sin!' And saying this, he fell asleep." (HCSB)
In the first 50 verses of chapter 7, Stephen summarized the plight of the Jewish nation from their inception with the Abrahamic covenant through their wilderness wanderings to the establishment of the monarchy. He wasn't saying anything that his audience didn't already know and understand to be true. His tone was gentle and matter of fact. But with verse 51 he turned a corner, as is evidenced by his words "You stiff-necked people."
Throughout most of the sermon, Stephen reaches out to his audience by being inclusive. He shows that throughout their history it was "us" against "them." But with verse 51 he excludes his listeners from the "us" and puts them in the "them" category, right alongside the Egyptians and other enemies of Israel. As you can imagine, these men of Israel didn't like his accusation.
In Stephen's estimate, it was their forefathers that resisted the Holy Spirit. It was their fathers that persecuted the prophets. It was them who had betrayed and murdered the righteous one. They were the recipients of the law, according to Stephen and they had not kept it.
Their blood boiled.
The temperature began to rise when Peter and John disobeyed their order to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus, and it continued to escalate when they filled all Jerusalem with His teaching, as is evidenced by the flogging they gave the disciples in the last chapter. But now, they'd had enough. Not even the calming words of Gamaliel could stop them now. Stephen had cut through the quick and accused them of not keeping the law keeping the law was something they prided themselves on.
So they rushed him and stoned him to death. It was customary when stoning people to throw them from a high peak, then if the fall didn't kill them, to throw rocks at them and roll boulders onto them until they died.
Why would Stephen provoke these men like this? Acts 6:5 says that Stephen was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit." (NASB)
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