Acts 7:54 – 8:1
When they heard this (Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin recorded in Acts 7:1 – 53), they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of god, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said ” I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” They he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
Stephen is the central figure, his light yellow cloak brightly illuminated from the opening in the clouds. The golden glow from this opening contrasts to the shadows the darkened Jerusalem in the background. From this light flies an angle, holding a palm branch, while a cherub rests on the edge of the cloud, holding a halo. This is not what Stephen described when he looked up to heaven, and what tipped the crowd to stoning him. While they were enraged already by his connection of Jesus to prophetic scripture, his claim that he was seeing, and his challenge to them, “Look,…” for them to also see, Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. This was blasphemy, deserving of quick death.
Interestingly, in the verse that follows, the members of the Sanhedrin are not described as not seeing, but as covering their ears. Does this suggest that they did see but refused to acknowledge, or that they did not see and refused to listen to someone who did see clearly?
However, this was not a mob action only. First, they took Stephen out of the Sanhedrin and the city. In Roman territories, executions and burials occurred outside the walls of the city (remember that the church in which these frescoes are painted is “Outside the Walls” too). Thus, the mob was orderly enough to follow law and custom. Also, a member of the Jewish ruling class, a Pharisee, Saul was overseeing this stoning. And, he gave his approval. Saul, in a red cloak, stands uphill and behind Stephen. Men in the mob roll up their sleeves or remove their cloaks to place at their feet, while they go about their task.
Stephen has his hands raised, not to deflect the blows of the stones, but in forgiveness. Just as Jesus forgave the Romans and Jews who crucified him, Stephen sets an example for other Christians and Saul.