“Look,” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” – Acts 7:56 (NET)
With these words, Stephen fell into a high degree of disfavor with the men to whom he was speaking. Stephen, of course, the man often referred to as the first Christian martyr, was speaking to the Jerusalem council. He had been arrested because some men, who “were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (6:10), convinced others to accuse Stephen of “speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God” (6:11b). With this, they are said to have “incited the people, the elders, and the experts in the law” (6:12a), so he was seized and brought before the council. It would seem to be clear that there was a desire for Stephen to suffer a fate similar to the Jesus of whom he spoke.
When asked by the council to answer the charges against him, Stephen, in the grand tradition of the prophets of old, recounted the history of Israel beginning with Abraham. In what would have been a recognizable fashion to the assembled hearers, Stephen retraced the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the exodus, the golden calf, Joshua, David, and Solomon, demonstrating the supreme importance of Israel’s historically-based self-understanding of themselves as the covenant people of the Creator God.
He then closed his dissertation by saying “You stubborn people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, like your ancestors did! Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold long ago the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become! You received the law by decrees given by angels, but you did not obey it” (7:51-53).
Not unexpectedly (at least in what would have been the understanding of the recipient of the book of Acts, which was the second part of the Luke/Acts series), “When they heard these things, they became furious and ground their teeth at him” (7:54). As Luke tells this story, it is almost as if he wants to give the reader the impression that these men were responding to the words of Stephen in the manner of beasts. Then, Stephen, having “looked intently toward heaven” where he insists that he “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55), went ahead and made an addendum to his dissertation by saying “Look, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”
This further enraged his hearers, so much so that, in the previously implied manner of wild animals, “they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent” (7:57). That one intent, of course, was slaughter, which is made clear by the following verse, which reports that “When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him” (7:58a), with this ultimately resulting in his death.
Why did they respond with such reportedly beastly fury? What was it that Stephen had said that could cause them to respond in such a way? Certainly, this was not the first time that somebody had been critical of the council. Were they upset because he had referred to them as murderers and betrayers? Not likely. In their minds, in his reference to Jesus, Stephen was merely referring to a blasphemer with whom they had summarily and properly dealt and who had been rightfully executed as a state criminal and challenger to the power of Rome, so they were not inclined to consider themselves to have been murderers and betrayers.