Stephen is on trial for his life
The context of this verse is Stephen on trial for his teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. He is before the council of Jewish leaders, and witnesses have been brought who have accused Stephen of speaking against the temple and the customs of Moses (verse 14). The charge is blasphemy, so Stephen is on trial for his life.
After the council hears the charges and the details from the witnesses, all eyes turn toward Stephen for his response. In verse 15 we read: “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
His face being altered noticeably indicates the favor of God is upon him. In Exodus 34, we see that the face of Moses shone with glory after his conversing with God. He was God’s prophet to deliver the word of God to men. The word of God depicts the glory of God.
In Matthew 17, we see something similar in the transfiguration of Jesus. As he is praying, his face is altered so that it shone like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear with him and talk about his departure (Luke 9). Their ministries served to point to Christ and glorify him. God directs us to him: “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
Stephen’s face reflects the glory of Christ, who is exalted after fulfilling the word of God found in Moses and the prophets. Stephen is an example of love to the unseen Christ. Peter writes to Christians, “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory (1st Peter 1:8).”
Love to Christ will engage all the other affections of his people; if he has their love, their desires will be chiefly after him; their hopes and expectations will be in him. It was love from his soul that engaged Stephen for Christ, and it was reflected in his face. His will was oriented to exalt Christ. How do we attain such love to Christ as we see in Stephen?
First, we must understand that the love of Christians unto Christ is a grace put into their hearts by the Holy Spirit. We cannot attain it on our own. There is no seed of it in our nature. We are dependent upon the Spirit to plant this in our soul. Love to Christ is a divine spark that comes from above. The Lord Jesus teaches us to pray for the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).
The foundation of this love the Spirit gives is the discovery of Christ as a suitable object for love; that he is excellent and matchless (Colossians 1:15-23); there is treasure in him and an abundance of all graces. Without this, there will be no going forth of the heart unto love for him.
The pattern in the gospels is those who sought Christ out had a need only he could satisfy or cure: lepers calling on him, an afflicted woman sneaking through the crowd to touch his garment, a tax collector climbing a tree to gaze upon him, and many other such cases. We too have a desperate need that only Christ can meet.
Stephen loved Christ because he was the Son of God, who clothed himself with our flesh like a servant, died the cursed death on the cross like a criminal, and all for our sakes. His name is Jesus, which means “to save,” because he saves his people from their sins. He rose from the dead for our justification, and he sits at the right hand of God. He is a worthy object of love and thanksgiving.
Stephen was on trial for his life, but his eyes were upon Christ. The communion he had with Christ raised him above this present world. It is the nature of love to desire to be close to the object beloved. We like to be close to those we dearly love. Stephen’s rest and repose for his soul was in Christ. His face was a glow with affection; the desire to honor the Lord Jesus.
We also see in Stephen the model of Christian love to Christ is a yielding and dedication of themselves to his will and service. Stephen was full of faith. He was a deacon, who served tables, and testified to others of the Lord. He gave himself to the one he loved, to be wholly at his disposal.
We should ask for the Spirit, and study the glory and grace of Christ. He humbled himself in order to take away our corruptness, and give us the light and life of knowing God.
The Rev. Chris Shelton is the pastor of The First Presbyterian Church of Union.