Yankee baseball great Yogi Berra was famous for his (supposedly) unintentional verbal gaffes, one-liners that made people scratch their heads and laugh.
Yogi often used the wrong word, to hilarious effect. He once described a batter who could hit right- or left-handed as “amphibious.” Another time, he touted the importance of Little League: it helps “keep parents off the streets.”
He could make a math teacher cringe: “Pair up in threes”; “I usually take a two-hour nap from one to four”; “Baseball is ninety percent mental, and the other half is physical.” And sometimes, his Yogi-isms (as they came to be called) took on an almost Zen-like quality: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
Classic Zen Yogi. But my personal favorite is this one: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
Déjà vu. You know the feeling. You’re in a particular place or situation and suddenly have the sensation that you’ve been there before, as if a moment of your life had just been put on instant replay. Weird.
But sometimes, when reading our Bibles, we should get something like a sense of déjà vu — of reading something we’ve read before in another context, of watching a scene unfold that reminds us of another scene from another time.
More specifically: reading the trial of Stephen should remind us of the trial of Jesus.
With prophetic boldness, Stephen had laid open the pretensions of the Sanhedrin. He was supposed to be the powerless defendant, but ended up putting them on trial. And they resented it.
But that doesn’t mean Stephen was angry. He wasn’t preoccupied with their hypocrisy, or trying to save his own skin. Filled with the Spirit, he was preoccupied with God. He gazed heavenward and openly described the vision that presented itself. “Look,” he said, as if to invite his accusers to share the vision with him. “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56, NRSV).
“Son of Man” was one of Jesus’ favorite names for himself. It’s a reference to the vision of the prophet Daniel, who saw “one like a human being [or ‘one like a son of man’] coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13) to receive dominion and kingship from the Ancient One. Stephen combines this prophecy with the words of Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
Sound familiar? Jesus himself had used the same two prophecies at his own trial (Matt 26:64; Mark 14:62; cf. also Luke 22:69, which eliminates the reference to Daniel).
Two trials. Similar circumstances, similar results. Jesus and Stephen had both been falsely accused of speaking blasphemously against the temple and dragged before the council. Jesus and Stephen both combined Daniel 7 and Psalm 110. While Jesus spoke of himself, Stephen spoke of a vision of Jesus. And both were found guilty and sentenced to death: Jesus by crucifixion, Stephen by stoning.
Indeed, as Stephen described his vision, how could the council not have remembered the trial of Jesus? As one commentator has noted, if the Sanhedrin had not found Stephen guilty, it would have been a tacit admission that they had made a mistake with Jesus.
But when I say that Stephen was “found guilty,” I don’t mean that there was order and due process. The council was already furious; his blasphemous-sounding vision of the glory of God gave them the excuse they needed to vent their fury. What Luke describes sounds less like a proper conviction and execution than a lynching: “But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:57-58a).
Stephen had made them boiling mad. They refused to see what he saw; they refused to listen to what he said. In self-righteous hatred, they killed him.
Even as the stones beat upon and broke Stephen’s body, he still followed in the footsteps of his Lord. From the cross, Jesus had prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), and a few hours later, cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (vs. 46; note that these two sayings from the cross are found only in Luke). Stephen prayed not to the Father, but to Jesus himself: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). And with his final breath, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vs. 60).
What did Stephen see when he looked up to heaven? Scholars have argued back and forth about whether it’s significant that Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, instead of sitting as Psalm 110 would have it. Various explanations have been offered, and it may be much ado about nothing.
But there’s one explanation I find particularly appropriate. As Stephen prepared to die for the gospel, the Lord Jesus stood to bear witness to his faith, to honor him before the Father.
And seeing that, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, died honorably and with a heart full of grace — as Jesus had done before him.