Pointing the finger

Doesn’t that graphic make you feel just a tiny bit self-conscious?

People dislike having a finger pointed at them. It makes them defensive. That’s usually not a good thing when you’re trying to convince them of something. In fact, some business consultants suggest that a person leading a meeting should never point directly at someone. Instead, they recommend gesturing toward the person with an open hand, palm up.

That’s because pointing a finger, literally and physically, or metaphorically with words, can make people angry.

Sometimes, murderously so.

As we’ve seen, Stephen’s so-called “defense,” at the end, turned to offense. He finished his testimony to the Sanhedrin with a withering indictment of their spiritual disobedience. Here is the accusation again:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it. (Acts 7:51-53, NRSV)

Up to this point, he had kept a more or less neutral tone as he retold the story of God’s faithfulness and Israel’s disobedience. He had even spoken repeatedly of “our” ancestors, emphasizing the heritage he shared with his accusers.

But suddenly, the language shifted. Stephen pointed a rhetorical finger straight at the council. He no longer spoke of “our” ancestors, but “your” ancestors. He distanced himself from them, and he began to sound like a thundering Elijah.

The Bible frequently describes people as “hard-hearted.” The word translated here as “stiff-necked” literally means “hard-necked.” We saw the background of this language in the previous post. Stephen’s story had been about the people’s rebellion of old. But he drew the connection at the end: This isn’t just about them, it’s about you. You’re stiff-necked like they were. You are outwardly circumcised, but not inwardly. You don’t love God and you refuse to listen.

The Holy Spirit, after all, had been moving powerfully since Pentecost. Stephen himself spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit and with an angelically radiant face. How could the leaders of God’s people stand so obstinately against what God was doing? In their blind resistance, the Sanhedrin shared the blood-guilt of their ancestors, who had persecuted the prophets, who had killed those who spoke of the coming Messiah. The list includes prophets like Isaiah who, according to tradition, was sawed in half, and John the Baptist, who was beheaded.  

Given a chance, the Sanhedrin would have angrily denied the charge. As Jesus himself had said to the scribes and Pharisees, “You say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets'” (Matt 23:30-31).

But Jesus and Stephen knew better. Not only had the people of old habitually killed the prophets, the leaders of Stephen’s day specifically betrayed and murdered the Messiah himself (cf. Matt 21:33-44). Just as their circumcision was only a matter of outward conformity, Stephen proclaimed, so too was their reverence of the Law. If you really revered Moses and the Law, he seemed to say, you wouldn’t have killed Jesus, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. And you’re accusing me of blasphemy?

People had brought false testimony against Stephen. The council was there to rule on his guilt. But in the end, he pointed the prophetic finger back at them.

Not surprisingly, the council didn’t take it well: “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (Acts 7:54).

Imagine the scene. The council members are glaring at Stephen. Their eyes  narrow with hatred. Their jaws are clenched. Their arms are rigid, their hands balled into fists. They are ready to strike with the slightest excuse.

And as we’ll see, Stephen is about to give them the excuse.