One of the purposes of Acts is to proclaim the innocence of Christianity: innocence of civil crime and innocence of unethical conduct. Throughout the book thus far, continuing even to the end, this innocence is proclaimed. Christians are not lawbreakers and rebels – but their enemies often are.
Stephen was one of seven special church servants mentioned in chapter six. Despite the lowliness of his job (according to worldly standards), he must have been an influential figure in Jerusalem. A great speaker and debater, the church was blessed by his work and his opponents were at a loss as to how to deal with him. Finally, they did what they did to Jesus – hauled him before the Jewish court and accused him falsely. They charged him with speaking against the temple.
Interestingly, Stephen, in his defense, picks up precisely there.
A casual reading will likely miss Stephen’s point, so be careful. It looks like Stephen is simply rehearsing the history of the Jewish people, but it is more than that. In 7:1-8, Stephen emphasizes God’s great work in their behalf. Notice “god sent,” “God gave,” “God promised” etc. In 7:9 – 32, Stephen rehearses the behavior of the Jewish people toward their own: first Joseph, then Moses; both of whom were servants of God. In 7:33 – 38 we return to work God has done specifically in their behalf and in verses 39 through 50, we have the rebellion of God’s people. The rebellion, as Stephen tells it, includes the building of the temple. Note that the “tabernacle of testimony” was designed by God, but Solomon decided to build something else, a “house” for God, despite the fact that God doesn’t live in temples made with hands.
And now, the Jewish people are placing the temple even above the servant of the Lord, Jesus. He charges them with being true to their heritage – but it is a poor heritage and more insult than they can stand. Dragging him outside the, they murdered him by stoning.
In telling this story, Luke emphasizes the innocence of Christianity, the faithfulness of the Christian way, and the guilt of Christianity’s detractors. He also introduces us to the most famous persecutor of all: Saul of Tarsus.