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Stephen’s Vision of Heaven

In Acts chapter 7, the disciple Stephen schools a council of elders, scribes and the high priest on the Old Testament, outlining a course of history from Abraham to Jesus.  In doing so, the council becomes enraged and stones Stephen to his death.  In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  In this short article, I want to point out a small but important item in this sequence that seems to be regularly overlooked by the pastoral community.

In general terms, I usually hear pastors and preachers say that Stephen sees Heaven open as he is being stoned.  But this isn’t the case.  It is a small and technical point, but that is just not what happened.  Here is the sequence in Acts:

“Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?  And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”  When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.  But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.  And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Acts 7:52-60

Notice that Stephen sees Heaven open with Jesus standing at the right hand of God before the council throws a single stone.  He had this vision after the council gnashed their teeth at him. 

Gnashing of teeth is seen 11 times in the Bible, and each time it is related to wickedness and unrighteousness of the unbeliever.  The Acts 7:54 phrase is especially interesting when seen in the original King James:

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

Acts 7:54

Here it is more compelling in that they gnashed on him with their teeth, versus gnashed at him with their teeth. It’s a subtle difference, but the former provides a more distinct, direct and aggressive offensive against the recipient, versus applying this at him… it’s tangible versus intangible in a sense. And applied here, it imminently and quickly becomes tangible for Stephen.

A note on the word teeth is useful. Teeth in certain instances in the Bible are seen as a type of containment for one’s life. A good example of this is in Job 13:14, when Job says, “Why do I take my flesh in my teeth….”  Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon says that this phrase means he is carrying his flesh, or life, in his teeth, i.e., he is exposing it to the greatest danger, as anything held in the teeth may easily drop.  So related to what happened with Stephen in Acts, it appears that his life container = teeth were ground = gnashed out of him.

Why are these details important?  Perhaps they are not.  But my thought is this:  when a believer is at the certain end of his life here on earth, when he is imminent to death, God reveals Himself to the believer moments before death in a heavenly vision and presentation, as a comfort through the transformation of death to eternal life.  Another way to put it is the inverse of this, that a believer doesn’t go from being alive to a dark, silent death, then on to eternity with God.  There is no low point of despair in the death, but a smooth transition into what I think is real, true and absolute life.  Consider this as if faith ends before death begins… faith believes in the unseen, but in this instance faith is already behind us because, as Chris Tomlin sings in I Will Rise, “my faith shall be my eyes.”  Remember, Stephen saw Jesus in Heaven before dying.

This conception gains traction when you consider the number of near death experiences we have all heard about.  While I’ve had my doubts about a number of these, there does seem to be merit to some of them, especially when you apply Stephen’s biblical, God inspired experience as a baseline.

It is also interesting to note that Stephen sees Jesus standing in Heaven, not sitting.  Every other instance in the Bible related to the posture of Jesus in Heaven is being seated, or set in His proper place.  At first this seems to be a small contradiction, but upon examination of these words in the original Greek, it’s not.

The word sit is Strong’s reference number G2523 and is the Greek word kathizō. It means to make to sit, or to sit, or to set, or to appoint.  This is used in Ephesians 1:20 and several times in the book of Hebrews.  For example, in Hebrews 10:12, it says that after Jesus had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, He sat down at the right hand of God.  In essence, He was finished with His earthly work… “It is finished,” as He said ending His work on the cross (John 19:30).

On the other hand, the word standing in Acts 7:55 is Strong’s number G2476 and means to make firm, to place, to appoint, or to set.  This word in Greek is histēmi, but it is also translated as set 11 times.  This word is also the basis for the word pillar.  Jesus is firmly established in His place at the right hand of God, by appointment.  So you can see these words, sit and standing, have similar meanings.  There could be further imagery here in Jesus standing, in that He is on His feet as one of His bride comes to Him.  Remember we are the bride of Christ, and Jesus is the bridegroom; no groom will be sitting as he sees his beloved bride coming to him.

There is one last item of interest to point out related to the above verses.  After Stephen sees Jesus at the right hand of God, the council in Acts 7:57, “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears.”  It’s pretty obvious that they did not want to hear what Stephen was saying, so they did what they could to quit hearing it.  Another look into the Greek helps to provide more insight into what is happening here. 

The word ear in this verse (Greek word ous, Strong’s number G3775), according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary, metaphorically means the faculty of perceiving with the mind, with understanding and knowing.  It means taking the hearing into your mind and keeping it there.  A great example of this is in the early chapters of the book of Revelation, where John writes to the seven churches.  To end each letter, he writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says…” (Revelation 3:22).  Similarly here in Acts, the council was being convicted by the Holy Spirit with Stephen’s teaching, and being uncircumcised in heart and ear as they were (Acts 7:51), they could not stand it any longer, and stopped their ingesting of the truth and quieted Stephen by taking his life.

Examining the scriptures in detail almost always provides enlightenment into the particular meaning of what is being conveyed, and this case is no exception.  Remember when you hear the story of Stephen and his martyrdom that the correct sequence is:

  1. gnashing of teeth
  2. vision of Heaven
  3. stoning of Stephen

A look into the original language also helps in gaining further understanding into what God is trying to teach us.  Here it is largely a sequential event being scrutinized, and in doing so, a greater understanding of God’s heart is found.