It is now appropriate to return to the question of why this intense response from the respective councils? What had Jesus and Stephen said? To what had they alluded? The search for the answer leads to the book of Daniel, which was an important, highly regarded, and determinative work of prophecy (highly charged politics and polemics, in the Jewish prophetic tradition) in the time of Jesus and Stephen. Specifically, one would look to the seventh chapter of Daniel, in which Daniel himself is said to have recorded a vision of four beasts that came up from the sea.
The fourth of these beasts was said to be “dreadful, terrible, and very strong. It had two large rows of iron teeth. It devoured and crushed, and anything that was left it trampled with its feet” (7:7b). This beast was also said to have had ten horns. Daniel says “As I was contemplating the horns, another horn---a small one---came up between them, and three of the former horns were torn out by the roots to make room for it. This horn had eyes resembling human eyes and a mouth speaking arrogant things” (7:8). A bit later on, Daniel reports that the “horn began to wage war against the holy ones and was defeating them” (7:21b). This was reported to have gone on until “the Ancient of Days arrived and judgment was rendered in favor of the holy ones of the Most High” (7:22a).
Prior to this, Daniel reports “I was watching until the beast”---this being the one with the horn that was waging war against the holy ones of the Most High---“was killed and its body destroyed and thrown into the flaming fire” (7:11b). After this occurred, “with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. To Him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty. All peoples, nations, and languages were serving Him. His authority is eternal and will not pass away. His kingdom will not be destroyed” (7:13b-14).
Now what does this have to do with Stephen and Jesus? Well, when Jesus stands and says to the high priest that he (the high priest) will see “the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven,” He is making a well-understood reference to Daniel seven. He also seems to be referring to Himself as the Son of Man. So unless He is referring to the high priest as the Ancient of Days, the only entity to whom Jesus can be making reference when He tells the high priest that he will see these things, is the beast and the horn that is waging war against the saints of God.
What is found here is Jesus equating the high priest with the fourth beast of Daniel’s vision. This would appear to be made abundantly clear by the high priest’s now more than understandable response, in which he tears his clothes, pronounces Jesus to be a blasphemer, and sentences Him to death. This is quite understandable if one realizes what Jesus is saying to and about the high priest.
Stephen stands before the exact same high priest and speaks of Jesus standing at the right hand of Israel’s God. With this, Stephen makes a clear allusion to Daniel seven (and to Jesus’ own words that would be well-remembered by the high priest), referring to Jesus as the Son of Man who is made to stand before the Ancient of Days to receive His kingdom after the beast is put down. So, like Jesus, Stephen also declares the high priest (perhaps even extending this now to the whole council?) to be the beast and the horn that is waging war against the saints of the Creator God. The fact that this is precisely what he is doing, as he follows in the footsteps of his Lord, is made clear by the already mentioned response. In essence, they labeled him as a blasphemer, and like the beasts that he had proclaimed them to be, rushed at him with one intent, having pronounced the verdict of “guilty” and “deserves death.”
It is a story that is poignant, dramatic, and telling, but the similarities with Jesus do not end with the words that condemn the high priest, with the verdict of blasphemy, or with the carrying out of the sentence of death. Stephen has imitated his Lord to this point, and he is going to do the same to the end. Turning to the Gospel of Luke (who was also the author of Acts), one there finds that Jesus, at the cross, said “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (23:34a). Later, Jesus adds “into Your hands I commit My spirit” (23:46b).
Though the words of forgiveness are omitted in many important, ancient manuscripts of Luke, if the similarities between the immediate events that led to the respective martyrdoms of both Jesus and Stephen are taken into consideration which were the verdicts of blasphemy rendered by the council at the insistence of the high priest, then it is also found that the record of such words being spoken by Jesus carry with them the ring of truth, as Stephen goes to his own death saying “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” To that he adds, in what must have been a certain and thoughtful imitation of the tradition being passed on by the Jesus’ disciples, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (7:60b)