The account of Stephen’s martyrdom is both a tragic and blessed one. It began in chapter 6 with his commissioning along with six others to fulfill a new church office, and begins with Stephen answering the charges that were levelled against him.
7:1 The high priest is overseeing this trial for heresy and sedition according to the Jewish religious leaders (once again we point out the intertwining of spiritual and civil matters in this court; they are, in effect, one and the same in the minds of the council).
The general answer that Stephen makes relates to the specific charges of speaking against the temple and the customs/law given by Moses. Stephen gives a detailed response starting not with Moses but with Abraham, the very beginning of the nation of Israel. He lays out how God was with the people, but was often rejected by them, and he culminates by using all of that to show that the rejection of God was continuing in that day. God did a new thing among them in Jesus, who is the true Temple and Moses’ true successor, but they refused to believe and confess that.
It’s important to note in this whole speech/sermon/answer, that Stephen begins with the Old Testament. He confesses the truth of all of it, and bases his words of judgment that come later on the foundation that they all have in the Old Testament. We note this because it’s become popular today to discount the Old Testament events as allegories or other fictions and to contrast God in the OT with God in the NT as somehow being different. But what Stephen says illustrates the deep connection between Old Testament and New: all actual history, and the same God in all of it.
This could also be viewed as a great survey of many of the major events of Old Testament history in just a couple of minutes. If someone wants to know what the Old Testament tells us in a very brief overview, this chapter is a great one to point to.
7:2 Notice the respectful way Stephen addresses the council members. He begins not with what divides them (though he certainly ends with that) but with what they share in common.
7:35-43 Stephen points out that Moses was also rejected by the people. He’s laying the foundation that these men who are putting him on trial with the accusation of wanting to do away with Moses’ customs (i.e. Torah) are in fact rejecting God in a very similar way as the people rejected Moses, since they’re continuing to reject the prophets (and THE Prophet, Jesus) that God sent (7:37 points us to Jesus who is connected to Moses as the promised prophet to come).
7:44-50 Stephen now talks about the issue of the temple, which began as the tabernacle (the “tent of witness”, as the ESV says it). He references the important note that the building of the temple was not something God wanted, but began as David’s idea and fulfilled by Solomon (check out 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Kings 5-8 for more on that; the most important part of it for this context is 2 Sam. 7:4-8 where God says He doesn’t need an earthly house, and 2 Sam 7:11-16 where God refers to Solomon but also to the One who would reign forever - who we know is Jesus).
So the temple is now essentially obsolete because of Jesus, though these leaders refuse to recognize that. Jesus is the true Temple (see John 2:18-22), and God’s promise that it would be the place where His name was is now given over to Jesus instead of the building (see also Matthew 27:51 for more evidence of this).
Stephen is trying to help them understand this all, even quoting Isaiah 66 to illustrate the whole point, and then turns to speak words of judgment because the leaders are doing the same thing as Israel has done before: rejecting God. Stephen’s defence is simple, and it echoes Jesus before him: you leaders accuse me of breaking the law, but it is you who are actually doing that because you refuse to see that all of it leads to Jesus.
7:54 The leaders respond to the same message that Peter gave in Acts 2 in a completely different way. In Acts 2 the people were “cut to the heart”. In more modern theological language we would say that they were convicted of their sin and repented. Their hearts were broken over their sin and became “hearts of flesh” (e.g. Ezekiel 36:26), softened to the Word of God. But here, the ESV says they “were enraged”, though a more literal translation would be “their hearts were being sawn in two”. Their hearts were broken, yes, but not in repentance; their hearts were hardened against this word of God that they were hearing, and so their hearts were splintered into a frenzied anger.
7:55-56 Stephen finishes his sermon/answer with a word of Gospel: He sees the resurrected and ascended Christ! God granted him this amazing vision; if only the hearers would also see with the same eyes.
7:57-58a But they don’t. Instead they bring down the punishment for blasphemy, which is stoning. But they don’t do it according to their proper procedure (which would involve another hearing to confirm the decision and hand down the sentence). They become a mob, and in so doing, prove Stephen’s point that they are in fact breaking the law themselves.
7:58b It’s almost a sort of throwaway line here (though it’s not because nothing in Scripture is a throwaway line), but it’s a critically important note for the next few chapters but also for the rest of the history of the New Testament Church: Saul (who would become known as Paul) was there, giving approval to this execution (see 8:1).
7:59-60 Only by being full of the Holy Spirit (which we’ve heard about twice now: 6:3, 6:5, and 7:55) could Stephen utter a prayer of forgiveness for those who are murdering him. Once again we see him following in the footsteps of Jesus Himself, praying for those who are actively killing him and praying that God would receive his spirit as he was so near death.
Notice also the language right at the end of the chapter: “he fell asleep”. The predominant language of the Bible when it comes to the death of the saints is being asleep. This seemingly little thing is a powerful witness to the resurrection, that there will be a day when they (we!) will awake to eternal life.