Luke shows it to us in a covert way, but Stephen is overtly Paul’s forerunner. And it is also for this reason that a large and bright portrait is drawn. There are two precise signs of the connection between Stephen and Paul: the presence of Saul at the stoning of Stephen and a discourse with a similar impact.
When Saul/Paul was so young that he could not participate in the stoning of Stephen, it is specified that he collaborated by taking into custody the clothes of those who stoned him (v. 58). The young are radical by nature and tend to identify themselves, so Saul identified himself with the persecutors and imitated them as soon as he was of age. Saul, however, listened to all of Stephen’s speech and perceived the Spirit, so when Jesus appeared to him and decided to become his disciple, his model became Stephen. A model recognisable by a particularity: it aroused in the opponents a hatred addressed not only to the message, but also to that particular messenger. This hatred was immediately roused by Saul in Damascus (9:22-25), as well as in Jerusalem, where Peter was left relatively in peace by the Jews, who had not tolerated Stephen and would not endure Saul either later on (9:28-30).
In his speech to the Jews, Stephen, beginning in a roundabout way, relives the history of Israel, but re-counting it in contrast to the usual way. The Jews tended to exalt the superiority of God’s people over other nations, placing an emphasis on God’s promises to Abraham and the privilege of being governed by a law as perfect as that of Moses.
Stephen, instead, shows how, in the crucial moments, Israel had exposed how they had rejected those whom God sent them (Joseph, Moses). At the beginning he identified himself with the audience («Brothers and Fathers … our father Abraham …», v. 2), but in the end he dissociated himself from them by talking about «your fathers» (vv. 51-52). Stephen and the audience were equally Jewish, in short, but the “fathers” he referenced to were not always the same. Thus, Stephen comes to an unbearable conclusion for the proud audience: « You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit […] Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? » (vv. 51-52).
It is easy to see the difference with the message that had so far been communicated by Peter, who also accused the audience of being responsible for the killing of the Messiah, but the error committed was for Peter remediable with a true repentance, which would have allowed the confident expectation of the « restoring of all the things» (3:19-21).
Was Peter’s approach “more correct”, or Stephen’s? It is a wrong question, because both were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Through Peter, God had once again stretched out his hand to the people of Israel, and this led to the thousands of conversions we have seen. The ruling class, however, manifested a great closure and then the Spirit estimated that the time had come to challenge it openly, with a type of message that makes us think back to those of Ezekiel and Jesus.
In Ezekiel, in the Gospel and in Stephen we can trace a similar pattern. Ezekiel is an almost “resigned” prophet, who comes after an Isaiah in which there are much wider glimpses of hope. Jesus’s harsh demands are placed by Matthew towards the end (chapters 23-25), while at the beginning there is an attitude much more open to dialogue. At the same time, Stephen’s disruptive force (and then, similarly, Paul’s) comes after the less rude Peter, confirming that God is always “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6).
Stephen is accused by the Jews of repeating Jesus’ devastating words about the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (Mt 24:1-2; Luke 21:20-24); Stephen concludes his summary of Israel’s history by referring to the Temple (7:48-50) and then embarks on his radical final accusation (vv. 51-53). Stephen states that «the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands» (v. 48) and so some come to consider the statement of Stephen as an overcoming of the Temple and Judaism, but this is inconceivable considering that Stephen takes up a concept expressed by Solomon during the very inauguration of the first Temple (1 Kings 8:27), then moving in the vein of Isaiah (66:1-2) and the other prophets who announced the destruction of the first Temple (Jeremiah, Ezekiel).
Others find Stephen’s statement on the Temple as anticipating the content of the Letter to the Hebrews and this has its own reasonableness, even more so if one thinks about how the chapter of Isaiah quoted by Stephen continues; Isaiah in fact comes to say: “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol. These have chosen their own ways, and their soul delights in their abominations; I also will choose harsh treatment for them» (Isa 66:3-4). The Temple and sacrifices were instituted by God to educate in holiness, but if the same ones are used to justify a corrupt life, then God abolishes them. The letter to the Hebrews, in short, does say something new, however, the destruction of the Temple frequented by Christ fits into a framework similar to the destruction of the first Temple and, therefore, cannot in itself mean an exit from Judaism.
Peter was unable to enter into this new phase, but not because he was not zealous or because he suffocated the Spirit that was in him or because he somehow sinned: he was simply not humanly fit for the new task.
God assisted Stephen in a special way not only at the beginning, by making his face shine like that of an angel (6:15), but also at the end, when the heavens opened and the dying Stephen felt embraced by the Trinitarian God, since Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and saw Jesus at the right hand of the glorious Father (vv. 55-59).
Stephen’s bitterness towards Israel was not dictated by hatred, but by the love of someone who knew what troubles would come, if there were no repentance. Stephen showed his immense love for Israel, when he was about to be overcome by stones and, in spite of that, he found the physical and moral strength to get down on his knees and shout his last words of forgiveness: «Lord, do not hold this sin against them» (v. 60).
Only after concluding the first draft of these notes on Acts I noted the importance of Stephen’s speech for the comprehension of the whole Bible; however, we leave it for now in the final place for the explained considerations, so as not to open too wide of a bracket (see Link No. 7).