Last Sunday, our church studied Acts 6 together. We were spending time with Margaret’s family at a nearby lake, so we were not able to be part of the discussion of this exciting chapter of Scripture. So, I thought I would take the time (as if I needed an excuse) to discuss one interesting aspect of Acts 6.
The second half of Acts 6 (Acts 6:8-15) describes a portion of the service of Stephen. His service is quite similar to what we have already seen from the apostles in the earlier chapters of Acts. (For example, compare Acts 5:12 with Acts 6:8.)
In this post, I’m most interested in the last statement that Luke makes about Stephen in this chapter:
By looking intently at him, all who were sitting in the council (Sanhedrin) saw his face as something like a face of an angel. (Acts 6:15)
What does it mean that Stephen had a face “like the face of an angel”?
I’ve read many suggestions lately, most of them focus on Stephen’s physical appearance. Perhaps his face was shining. Perhaps his face showed that he was at peace. Perhaps his face was stern or fearful.
But, could it be that the sentence has little to do with Stephen’s physical appearance? Certainly, Luke does frame that sentence using physical phenomenon (“looking intently”, “saw”, “face”). And, if we only had that one sentence to go on, I would not doubt that Luke was talking about Stephen’s physical appearance.
However, I think there is some indication that Luke was talking about something else. Where is that indication? In the speech that Stephen gives to the council (Sanhedrin). Remember that when Luke wrote the book of Acts, there was no chapter division between Acts 6:15 and Acts 7:1. Instead, immediately after Luke says that Stephen had a face like that of an angel, the high priest asked Stephen to defend himself against the accusations that he was speaking against the law and the temple.
During his speech, Stephen makes several very interesting statements that are relevant to this discussion:
Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to him [Moses] in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in a flame of fire in a bush. (Acts 7:30 ESV)
This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’- this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. (Acts 7:35 ESV)
This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us (Acts 7:37-38 ESV)
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51-53 ESV)
Did you notice the prominent place that “angels” play in Stephen’s recounting of the history (and history of disobedience) of Israel – especially in the giving of the law and the exodus from Egypt? Did you notice the parallel? God delivered the law and led his people by an angel. But the people rejected God.
Now, here is Stephen… one who is recognized as looking like an angel… and he is proclaiming that the Messiah has come. And, what will the council do? They will reject him.
What happened to the prophets who exhorted the people back to God (as described to them by the law which was delivered by an angel)? The people killed the prophets.
What happened to Stephen who exhorted the people back to God through the Messiah (as described to them by one who looked like an angel)? Well, in Acts 7:54-60, Luke tells us that the council took Stephen outside the city and stoned him to death.
What do you think? Was Luke describing Stephen’s appearance? Or was he describing Stephen’s role of being a messenger (“angel”) of God? Perhaps something else?