Following in his footsteps

“He’s just like his dad.”

“Like father, like son.”

“He’s a chip off the old block.”

Children naturally imitate and learn from their parents, so it’s no surprise if a boy grows up to be like his father. Not only might the son look or sound like his dad, he may share some of his habits and mannerisms, personality and preferences. He may even follow in his father’s vocational footsteps.

As the New Testament makes clear, the Son of God came to reveal the Father. Jesus, in turn, commissioned his disciples to carry on after him. That, in essence, is how the biblical story continues from the gospels to the book of Acts. In the former, Jesus comes preaching, teaching, and demonstrating the arrival of God’s kingdom. In the latter, we watch the kingdom radiate outward toward the ends of the earth, through the ministry of his Spirit-empowered disciples.

All of us, as believers, follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We have inherited his vocation. By God’s Spirit, the story continues in and through us.

As we’ve seen, the book of Acts can be understood as the second half of a two-part story that begins with the gospel of Luke. Scholars call this story “Luke-Acts,” and there’s ample reason to believe that Luke intended to write two volumes from the start.

One way to see this is through the story of the arrest and martyrdom of Stephen.

The book of Acts is full of speeches and sermons. The longest is Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin in chapter 7 (which we will explore in upcoming posts). This is a pivotal moment in the story. Stephen’s death will mark a high point of the persecution of Jesus-followers in Jerusalem, and afterward the believers will begin to scatter away from the city, bringing the gospel with them.

As New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has noted, Stephen’s story has special significance. If you take the story of Stephen from Acts, and line it up against the stories of Jesus told by Luke and the other gospels, you find some important parallels and differences. We noted some of the parallels at the end of the previous post:

  • Both face a rigged trial by the Sanhedrin;
  • Both stand accused by false witnesses;
  • In both trials, the theme of the destruction of the Temple stands out;
  • Both are charged with blasphemy;
  • Before they die, both call upon God to receive their spirit;
  • Both pray for the forgiveness of their tormentors.

The first four parallels make perfect sense. Stephen is witnessing to Jesus, and his opponents respond to him the same way the Jerusalem leadership responded to Jesus. Don’t like what someone is saying? Can’t beat him on the debate floor? Then do what politicians still do today. Hurl accusations, using loaded language designed to get people riled up. Exaggerate, lie, and quote statements out of context.

But these parallels between Jesus and Stephen are also met by the differences in how Luke and the other gospel writers tell the story of the trial and death of Jesus:

  • Luke’s brief account of the trial does not mention false witnesses, the destruction of the Temple, or the charge of blasphemy;
  • Luke’s account of the death of Jesus is the only one to mention his committing his spirit to God or his prayer of forgiveness.

Luke’s way of telling Stephen’s story, in other words, resonates with the story of Jesus that we know from the other gospels. The parallels that Luke highlights, however, the ones that appear in both parts of Luke-Acts but not in the other gospels, are Jesus’ and Stephen’s intentional words of surrender and forgiveness.

It’s as if Luke, at this crucial juncture, wants to remind us just how closely Stephen is following in the footsteps of Jesus.

We know how that story turned out. It should give us some confidence about how this one will.