Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. [Acts 6:11-15 ESV]
Stephen was a normal person while an extraordinary Christian. Probably one of the Grecian Jews (Hellenists) who came to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he stayed when changed by the gospel and the teaching of the Apostles.
After the Church was formed it did not take long for a disagreement to arise about how the new converts received tangible care. Some widows were neglected in the distribution of needed food. He, and six other men, all Grecian Jews, were selected, appointed and blessed by the Apostles to fill this need. He was one of the first deacons. He, and the others, did more than wait tables. They were wise, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and willing to obey God.
A quarrel arose between the Grecian Jews who followed the letter of the Law, against Stephen. They accused him falsely, claiming he spoke “blasphemous words against Moses and God” [Acts 6:11 ESV]. They could not stand against the Spirit in him and the wisdom given in his words, so they made something up, created a fiction. In the next accusation, before the council, they suggested they heard Stephen say Jesus would destroy their place (the temple) and would alter their customs. Threatened by the work of the Holy Spirit in those who belong to God, a Spirit they did not have and a God they did not serve, they ignored the law and falsely accused an innocent man.
Stephen’s response to their accusations is a classic example of confronting that which is false with the truth. He knew the history of Israel and the teaching of Moses. Nothing he said was disputed, until the end of his speech. He wanted to make sure they were talking about the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
He talked about Joseph and his brother jealousy, being sent ahead to prepare a way for Israel in Egypt. He talked about Moses, and a king who did not know Joseph. He answered their accusations about blaspheming God. He had not. About changing the laws. Jesus would not and he could not. Here is his answer about Jesus destroying the temple.
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” [Acts 7:48-50 ESV]
Is not the temple His to do with as He wishes? It cannot contain Him any more than the whole universe could contain Him. His will cannot be thwarted. But those who say they are His can rebel against Him and try to change His statements to fit their own desires. Stephen spoke the truth and exposed their lie.
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. [Acts 7:51-53 ESV]
They murdered Stephen, who died at the feet of Saul, asking God to forgive the sin of murder so any might accept the offer of grace. Eventually, Saul did, becoming Paul. Those murdering Stephen could not murder God, though they tried. Death could not keep Him. Every statement of God exposed the rebellion in their hearts.
Suffering for righteousness’ sake is just that. It is righteousness standing before unrighteousness so those who are called may see their sin, repent of it and be changed by God. Suffering for righteousness’ sake does two things. It is used by God to strengthen the faith of His child in preparation for eternity and to witness to the world about Him.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” [Acts 7:59 ESV]