At the end of his sermon (vv. 51-52) Stephen applied what he said in true prophetic fashion. In doing so he made three accusations against the religious leaders: 1) they were resisting the Holy Spirit, as they had always done; 2) they were persecuting and killing the prophets, as they had always done; and 3) they were breaking the law of Moses, as they had always done. At that last point, their anger against Stephen reached such a heat that they would not hear him anymore and rushed him outside and stoned him.
We are told that before he began his address, Stephen’s face glowed like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). Here at the end of his address, knowing what was going to happen, he looked up and saw not an angel, but the Lord Jesus Christ whom they had crucified. Stephen saw the resurrected Jesus and called attention to Him, saying, “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56).
People have wondered why Jesus was standing in this vision, since in Hebrews 10:12 we are told, “But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” Hebrews makes a contrast between Jesus, who sat down, and the temple priests who always stood for their work (there were no chairs in the Jewish temple), signifying that their work was never finished. They had to make sacrifice upon sacrifice because their sacrifices were only types of Christ’s sacrifice. They repeated their sacrifices. When Jesus had made His sacrifice, His work was done.
But now Jesus is standing. Why? There have been two suggestions, and I think both may be valid. One is that Jesus stood up to receive His martyr Stephen. Sometimes we hear stories of the death of Christians which are like that. They are lying on their beds, but as they die they lift their arms and rise upward, sometimes even saying something like, “Look, I see Jesus.” Then they fall back and die. Perhaps that is the explanation of why Jesus stood when Stephen died.
But there is another explanation. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.” In view of this verse, it may be that we have a case of Jesus standing to plead Stephen’s cause as his advocate.
If this is the case, then what Stephen caught a glimpse of was that second and much greater trial in which he was involved. Up to this moment he had only been able to see the earthly trial. He was condemned by the earthly court. But at the moment of his death he caught a glimpse of that greater, heavenly trial, in which he was acquitted. In this trial the Lord Jesus Christ took his side, pleaded his case, and prevailed. He said to the Father, “Stephen is my follower. He is confessing me. I am going to take him with me into heaven forever.” I find that immensely encouraging.
In this life we go through many situations in which we are on trial, and although we try to do our best, we often fail and are even misunderstood. We get discouraged. But we have to remember that the trials we go through in this life are not the final trial of history. They may be important. We want to do as well in them as we possibly can. That is why we have to be strong and bear a faithful testimony in all circumstances. But the trial that really matters, the verdict that counts, is the verdict that is given by the Lord Jesus Christ and by God the Father.
I do not know what the Lord Jesus Christ says when He looks down, sees us and pleads our cause before the Father, though I am sure it varies in every case. But I do know that if we are His, He owns us and pleads our case in heaven. He says, “This one is mine. That one is mine. I died for these people. My death covered their sin. They are clothed in my righteousness.” As long as that is true, we can carry on. We can fight the good fight of faith, stand firm to the end, and bear a victorious testimony.