I have read many commentaries of Stephen’s death and of Paul’s persecuting believers of the Way, that conclude first the witnesses lied saying Stephen cursed the Temple and the Law, and secondly that Paul tried to cause believers to curse Jesus. These things are not true, at least not in the sense that we understand cursing today. Jesus was crucified under the charge of blasphemy. I have two blogs on this: (1) Jesus Before the Sanhedrin and (2) Jesus Before Pilate, and they show beyond doubt that the Scriptures conclude Jesus was crucified under the charge of blasphemy, despite the plaque that Pilate had nailed above Jesus’ head.
Notice the charge used against Stephen: “This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law; for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14 – KJV). Was this a false accusation? Didn’t Jesus, himself, declare to Annas, the high priest, that he would live to see Jesus coming in the clouds (of judgment) to judge his people (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:16)? Doesn’t Daniel the prophet predict the destruction of the Temple (Daniel 9:26-27), and if Jesus was informing Annas that he would see Jesus coming in judgment of his people, wouldn’t it be Jesus who brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple? Didn’t Moses, himself, say that God would one day send a Prophet like Moses to give commandments to Israel, implying something would be changed (Deuteronomy 18:15-19)?
Now, what did these false witness actually say about Stephen that was not true? Stephen had been arousing the anger of these men in the synagogue of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicia and Asia. Stephen’s argument is found throughout chapter 7 of Acts. This is the same argument that these men, including Saul, could not resist. God never intended to dwell in a Temple fixed in one place. That was David’s idea—not God’s. God condescended to David, because of his heart. But, originally God went from place to place. He was with Abraham in Mesopotamia and in the land of Canaan. He was with Joseph in Egypt, and Moses in Midian and the Israelites all over the wilderness. Moreover, Stephen told the elders and rulers of the Jews that God doesn’t dwell in buildings made by men. They got angry, but isn’t every word true? Couldn’t Stephen show everyone the Scriptures where this is so?
In Acts 7:37-52 Stephen went on to remind the rulers that Moses spoke of a Prophet whom God would send to the people, and that this “Prophet” was the Elect One that the Prophets foretold, but the rulers rejected him, just as their Jewish ancestors rejected Moses, so why wouldn’t their city be judged? Why wouldn’t this Temple made with human hands be judged? Didn’t they judge the Elect One—who was the human Presence of God Almighty?
So what was the false witness? All of what Stephen claimed was true. It couldn’t, therefore, be blasphemous, just as what Jesus told Annas, the high priest, was true. Annas called it blasphemy, but what Jesus claimed was not blasphemy, for the simple reason that it was the truth. Truth can never be blasphemy. Folks may call it blasphemy, but ignorance has no power to make anything blasphemous. Therefore, the false witness against Stephen was that what he claimed about the Scriptures was blasphemous. Their unbelief caused them to err and think Stephen’s message was blasphemy.
Later Paul made the same error. He tried to cause believers of the Way to commit blasphemy (Acts 26:11). He was not trying to get believers to curse Jesus. This is just as false an understanding as it is to believe Stephen’s false witnesses accused him of cursing the Temple and the Law. What Paul was trying to cause believers in the Way to do was agree that Jesus was just a man, that he did not rise from the dead—that Jesus was dead. This would be blasphemy, and this is what Paul sought to cause Christians to do.