"I, who formerly was a calumniator and a
persecutor and an outrager: but...I do it...in
unbelief." -- 1 Tim.1:13
ACCORDING TO the definition given in the Keyword Concordance of the New
Testament Concordant Version, the literal meaning of calumniator and blaspheming
is HARM-AVERRing. Stephen was wrongfully charged with "blaspheming Moses and
God" (Acts 6:11). Saul compelled men and women at all the synagogues to blaspheme the
name of Jesus (Acts 26:9,11), while he himself was a calumniator, as he later confessed to
Timothy (1 Tim.1:13). The meaning of AVER is "declare forcefully and
confidently," while the meaning of HARM is "Cause distress, damage, or
While in unbelief, Saul, indeed, caused distress, mental
anguish, even death (Acts 26:10) to those "who are of the way" (Acts 9:2). He
embarked on this atrocious career when he was a young man (Acts 7:58) who had
"progressed in Judaism above many contemporaries...being inherently exceedingly more
zealous for the traditions" (Gal.1:14).
Whether he had been among "those from
Cilicia...discussing with Stephen," we do not know. We may take it for granted,
however, that he, as a young Pharisee, was at least acquainted with the teaching of the
apostles and their helpers who "stir up the people as well as the elders and the
scribes" (Acts 6:9,12). Saul, "trained according to the strictness of the
hereditary law" (Acts 22:3), could not possibly miss the impact made on devout Jews
by Stephen who, "full of grace and power, did great miracles and signs among the
people" and enraged the learned men of the Hellenist synagogues in Jerusalem; for in
the discussions, "they were not strong enough to withstand the wisdom and the spirit
with which he spoke" (Acts 6:8-10).
THE MEN ON MOSES' SEAT
The scribes and Pharisees on Moses' seat
(Matt.23:2) who controlled the Sanhedrin to a great extent, were in the same plight as
most political rulers have been in ever since. The religious rulers in Israel demonstrated
the truth of the somewhat cynical phrase, "the only thing that man learns from
history is that man learns nothing from history. "Saul, even though he might not have
been a member of the Sanhedrin, being under the age of thirty, was no exception. After all
the years in the rabbinical college he was still unable to properly evaluate relevant
facts of Jewish history so as to arrive at a mature understanding of contemporaneous
events. His attitude did not differ from that of the elders, the scribes, and the other
Pharisees in this assembly. Presided over by Hannas, the chief priest, Caiaphas, and
others of the chief priestly race (Acts 4:6), they were still considered to be the highest
authority on all questions of religious importance at that time.
The chief priest was the one who, once a year, went into
the most holy place; but he did not even know that it was empty. As God's glory
had long since departed from the temple (Ezek.9:3; 10:18,19; 11:23), so the reasonings of
the chief priests had become devoid of spiritual intelligence. The influential
men of the Sanhedrin had never recognized the Lord of glory, or they would not
have crucified the One in Whom God's glory had returned (1 Cor.2:8). And when
"all those seated in the Sanhedrin perceived his [Stephen's] face as if it were the
face of a messenger" (Acts 6:15), once again they did not recognize that it reflected
the "illumination of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus
Christ" (2 Cor.4:6). If Saul was in the audience, he was going to listen to a
refresher course on Jewish national history such as he had never heard before. Apparently,
however, he was a restless man who would need years of seclusion, like those he spent in
the Arabian desert, in order to arrive at a complete re-orientation.
A LESSON FROM HISTORY
The historical events in themselves, as
Stephen presented them, were, of course, well known to every one in the audience. But they
had never grasped the fundamental fact that the Hebrew Scriptures had testified
"beforehand to the sufferings pertaining to Christ and the glories after
these" (1 Peter 1:11). Since they had ignored all the prophecies concerning the rejection
of Messiah and His sufferings, Stephen, "possessing the fullness of faith and holy
spirit" (Acts 7:55), used a new approach to the story of the chosen nation. He proved
to the scribes and Pharisees on Moses' seat that all their greatest leaders of the past
had undergone a period of rejection and suffering before they were acknowledged
and accepted by their countrymen. At the beginning of his lecture before the Sanhedrin
(Acts 7:2-56), he referred to the God of glory Who was seen by Abraham, but was
never recognized by this audience. Then Stephen laid the groundwork for his deduction by
hinting at points of similarity between Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David on the one side,
and the suffering Messiah on the other. By inference, he brought out these details:
Joseph, whom God extricated out of all his
affliction, was not recognized when his brothers first saw him after his exaltation,
just as the risen Christ was not acknowledged by the majority of the nation of Israel:
"This is the Moses who says to the sons of
Israel: A Prophet will God be raising up to you from among your brethren, as me"
(Acts 7:37; Deut.18:15):
Joshua, who led Israel into a temporary possession
of the land, just as Jesus (the Greek form of "Joshua") was ready to lead them
into permanent possession of the earth:
David, who was thrice anointed, first in the
hidden obscurity of his home in Bethlehem, then by men of Judah only in
Hebron, and, seven and a half years later, over all Israel (1 Sam.16:13; 2
Sam.2:4; 5:3): In this he is a perfect picture of Jesus Christ Who was first anointed as
He came out of John's baptism, by the spirit of God descending, not in symbolic oil, but
in the likeness of a dove (Matt.3:16); then, in his home town, Nazareth, He read
the passage (Isa.61:1), "The spirit of the Lord is on Me, on account of which He
anoints Me..." (Luke 4:18). But like David, He does not press His claim to
the throne until such time as His people shall want Him.
HIM YOU SHALL HEAR
About two thirds of Stephen's lecture was
devoted to Moses and his day, partly because the charge against him was, "Blaspheming
Moses and God." This wording was in itself an indication of the low spiritual
condition of the false witnesses and of the Sanhedrin members who had accepted this
charge. They gave Moses precedence over God! Stephen gave him precedence over the
other types who pointed to the antitype, Christ. All of the audience were, of course,
familiar with Moses' words in Deuteronomy, at which Stephen had just hinted. But some time
ago, a number of priests, Sadducees, and the officer of the sanctuary, had heard Peter
quote the following passage:
"Moses, indeed, said that, A Prophet will the Lord,
your God, be raising up to you from among your brethren, as me. Him you shall hear,
according to all, whatever He should be speaking to you. Yet it shall be, every soul which
should not hear that Prophet, shall be utterly exterminated from among the
people" (Acts 3:22,23; 4:1).
The Concordant Commentary explains this passage:
"Christ is the Prophet like Moses, sent to lead Ieue's people out of Egypt, through
the wilderness, into the kingdom. The whole period of the book of Acts is typified by
Israel's wilderness journey. Because the people did not hearken to Moses, they were strewn
along in the wilderness and never entered the holy land. Likewise, because the nation did
not hearken to the One Who was more than Moses, they did not enter the kingdom. The threat
of extermination is an inspired alteration. In Deuteronomy 18:19 the Hebrew is literally,
`I will inquire,' or, as we say, `I will require it of him.' The
Septuagint renders this, `I will take vengeance on him.'"
THE KINGDOM EVANGEL
Stephen's address to the Sanhedrin might be
considered an important milestone in Saul's career, since it serves to emphasize the doom
impending over him as well as the rest of the nation, should they not repent.
Peter and those with him, such as Stephen, offered the only kind of evangel available
during those days. This kingdom evangel called sinners to repentance.
In dealing with the conduct of mankind,
Paul charges men with ignorance of the fact that the kindness of God is leading them to
repentance. Yet, in accord with their unrepentant heart, they are hoarding for themselves
indignation in the coming judgment (Rom. 2:4-10). However, when he comes to the exposition
of the evangel for the nations, he never mentions repentance, since grace induces
a change of mind far greater than that produced by repentance (literal
WILL CHRIST BE DISOWNING US?
During the present secret administration of
grace (Eph.3:2, 9), sinners are not called to repentance, but believers
are, in case of unworthy walking or talking. Repentance is not a part of the
evangel for today, but it is much needed among the members of the body of Christ,
not only by those who fail to walk worthily of the Lord and of their high calling with
which they have been called, but also among brethren who antagonize the truth, being in
the trap of the Adversary (2 Cor.7:8-10; 12:21; 2 Tim.2:25,26).
For unreasoning believers who are disowning Christ's
disposition and are dodging humiliation and endurance, there will be much loss at the
dais. If we are not willing to go, along with Christ, into the depths of humiliation, we
need not expect to reign together with Him in the celestial realms. (For more details on
this subject, read Unsearchable Riches, volume 52, pages 79-92, the article Humility
and the Superabundance of Grace.)
PETER'S ALTERNATIVE: REPENTANCE OR
Repentance is an essential feature of God's
evangel for His earthly people. John the baptist, and our Lord, as well as His apostles,
called Israel to repent; in the days to come, after the rapture of the body
ecclesia, the seven synagogue ecclesias of the Unveiling will be warned to repent
(Rev.2:5,16,21,22; 3:3, 19).
In view of the severe judgments which will occur in
connection with the inauguration of the earthly kingdom, Peter told his audience when their
heart was pricked with compunction, "Repent and be baptized each of you in the
name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of your sins, and you shall be obtaining the gratuity
of the holy spirit" (Acts 2:37,38). Stephen's audience was different, they were harrowed
in their hearts so as to gnash their teeth at him, and press their ears
(Acts 7:54, 57). They were not going to repent at all, being stiff-necked and
uncircumcised in their hearts and ears (Acts 7:51). When Stephen describes their attitude
as "clashing with the holy spirit" we are reminded of the Lord's warning,
"The blasphemy of the spirit shall not be pardoned" (Matt.12:31,32;
Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10).
We have to go back to Moses' day in order to understand the
situation as it was before the introduction of unadulterated grace. The law provided a
sacrifice for sins of ignorance (Num.15:27-29). Israel had rejected the testimony
of Ieue Alueim and had persecuted the prophets of old. They also rejected the Lord Jesus
during His earthly ministry and crucified Him. For this, the sacrifice on the cross
availed, hence He Himself could pray, "Father, forgive them, they are not aware
what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). Likewise Peter, when priests and Sadducees stood
by, confirmed the Lord's prayer when he said, "And now, brethren, I am aware that in
ignorance you commit it, even as your chiefs also. Yet what God announces before
through the mouth of all the prophets, the suffering of His Christ, He thus fulfills.
Repent, then, and turn about for the erasure of your sins" (Acts 3:17-19; 4:1).
REJECTING THE TESTIMONY OF THE HOLY
It was the night before His death, when
Jesus promised His disciples "the holy spirit, which the Father will be sending in My
name, that will be teaching you all, and reminding you of all that I said to
you" (John 14:26). After He had risen from the dead, He amplified this promise when
He said, "You shall be obtaining power at the coming of the holy spirit on you, and
you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem and in entire Judea and Samaria, and as far as
the limits of the land" (Acts 1:8).
When Peter addressed the "chiefs of the people and
elders" in the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8,15), he was "filled with holy spirit,"
just as Stephen possessed "the fullness of faith and holy spirit" (Acts 7:55),
in accordance with the Lord's former promise, "Whenever they may be giving you up,
you should not be worrying about how or what you should be speaking, for it shall be given
you in that hour what you should be speaking; for not you are speaking, but the
spirit of your Father is speaking in you" (Matt.10:19,20).
The Father's and the Son's testimony had been repeatedly
rejected by almost all of the rulers in Israel; by many of the kings of old as well as by
the majority of the scribes and Pharisees on Moses' seat. Had they been faithful, no
prophets would ever have been sent to them. But their most appalling crime was the
crucifixion of the Lord of glory; this pernicious act proved the apostate condition and
utmost depravity of the Sanhedrin.
Saul had nothing to do with the death of the Lord Jesus, so
far as we know. If he, too, had been guilty of His crucifixion, he certainly would have
mentioned it (Acts 22:4,19, 20; 26:9-11; 1 Cor.15:9). But at the time when Stephen
was on trial, Saul associated himself closely with the members of the Sanhedrin; hence
there was companionship of both thought and act from there on, between him and the
religious rulers in Israel.
After the rejection of the Father's and the Son's
testimony, that of the holy spirit was remaining, consisting not of words only, but also
of great miracles and signs (Acts 3:6; 5:12-16; 6:8). For a man of Saul's background, it
was conceivable to disbelieve the heralding of "unlettered and plain men," such
as Peter and John, if he had heard them or had been in the capital at that time. But what
of the "known sign...[which] occurred through them...[which was] apparent to all who
are dwelling in Jerusalem" (Acts 4:13,16)? The sign could not be denied, but how
could it be explained away? If the curing from unclean spirits (Acts 5:16) and other
powerful deeds of the impending eon (Heb.6:5) were not ascribed to the holy spirit of God,
to whom else would a young Pharisee attribute them but to unclean spirits dwelling in the
apostles, in Peter as well as in Stephen?
The line of reasoning has its parallel in the attitude of
the scribes and Pharisees (Matt.12:24-32; Mark 3:22-30; Luke 12:10) during our Lord's
earthly ministry. At that time they said of Him, "An unclean spirit has he."
Yet, for such blaspheming against the holy spirit of God, there was no pardon; the
blasphemer (or calumniator) "is liable to the eonian penalty for the sin."
Hence this was a willful sin for which the law provided
no sacrifice, but declared that all willful sinners should be cut off from among the
people (Num.15:30,31). The alternative, repentance or extermination, is a kingdom
truth; it is certainly not for us today during the present secret administration of grace.
The alternative, however, would apply to Saul in unbelief; the moment he
became acquainted with Peter's and Stephen's testimonies, miracles, and signs, he was
called upon to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the pardon of
his sins. As long as he failed to do so, he was facing judgment; i.e., being cut off
from among his people, or being utterly exterminated from among his people, as an eonian
penalty for the sin. Such a sinner would not live during the thousand years, nor enjoy the
blessings on the new earth thereafter.
CALUMNIATOR, PERSECUTOR, OUTRAGER
When Stephen had finished his address, his audience
was on trial, and the charge was murder and treason (Acts 7:52). They had been shown that
throughout their national history, rejection and suffering comes before glory and that
"the Most High is not dwelling in what is made by hands" (Acts 7:48,49). Their
temple was desolate (Matt.23:38), their divine service was void (Rom.12:1), and Stephen's
quotation of the initial verses from the sixty-sixth chapter of Isaiah should have
reminded them of Ieue's opinion as to their temple ritual and how He would "repay
requital to His enemies" (Isa.66:1-6).
Stephen's charge, "traitors and murderers"
applied to Saul, too, for when they pelted Stephen with stones, "the witnesses put
off their garments at the feet of a young man called Saul...Now Saul was endorsing his
assassination" (Acts 7:58; 8:1). During the great persecution of the believing Jews
in Jerusalem, "Saul devastated the ecclesia: going into the homes, dragging out both
men and women, he gave them over to jail" (Acts 8:1,3). As to his part in the
persecution which started right after Stephen's assassination, Saul confessed in his
prayer in the sanctuary, "I was jailing and lashing those at the synagogues who are
believing on Thee" (Acts 22:19).
Many years later Paul gave more details to King Agrippa
about those days when he committed "much contrary to the name of Jesus the Nazarene,
which I do also in Jerusalem. And many of the saints besides, I lock up in jails,
obtaining authority from the chief priests. Besides, I deposit a ballot to despatch them.
And at all the synagogues, often punishing them, I compelled them to blaspheme. Besides,
being exceedingly maddened against them, I persecuted them as far as the outside cities
also" (Acts 26:9-11).
From this it seems that because of his outstanding zeal in
the persecution, Saul was awarded a voting membership in the Jewish supreme court, the
Sanhedrin. Otherwise he could not have given his voice, by means of a special pebble,
against Jewish saints in order to despatch (i.e., to kill) them.
The Concordant Commentary on Acts 7:60 reads as follows:
"Like his Master, Stephen prays for his murderers with his last breath. But, for the
nation, this sin against the holy spirit could not be pardoned."
We might add at this juncture that Stephen,
"possessing the fullness of faith and holy spirit," worded his last prayer so as
to fit the occasion, "Lord Thou shouldst not stand against them this
sin!" Stephen had no hatred against his murderers, but he left it up to the Lord
whether or not to judge them for this sin. The dying martyr knew that this was not the
time for a strong and positive petition like, "Father, forgive them!" The time
was past for that, hence his prayer was worded in the subjunctive mode together with the
conditional negative, "shouldst not."
Inside the land, under kingdom conditions, there was for
Saul no chance to escape the law of Sinai which said, Obey, and live; or disobey, and die.
God, however, in His own time, would be able to answer Stephen's prayer by providing
special circumstances for Saul, outside the land, where the law did not apply.
Saul was designated beforehand to come under another law, the spirit's law of life in
Christ Jesus which would free him from the law of sin and death in his members (Rom.7:23;
Let us praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
that we were spared the burden of living under the law of Sinai and that
"nothing...is now condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. Not according to flesh are
they walking, but according to spirit" (Rom.8:1). Hence let our thanks to God be more
than mere words, and let us take to heart Paul's pleading (Rom.12:1,2): "I am
entreating you, then, brethren, by the pities of God, to present your bodies a sacrifice,
living, holy, well pleasing to God, your logical divine service, and not to be
configured to this eon, but to be transformed by the renewing of your mind, for you to be
testing what is the will of God, good and well pleasing and mature."