Why Did Steven See Jesus Standing – Not Sitting– in Acts 7:55?
Steven was on trial for preaching in the name of Jesus. He reminded the Jews that “the Most High God does not dwell in temples made with hands” – ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, Or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?’ (Citing Isaiah 66:1f). In raging response the Jews gnashed on him with their teeth, and rushed at him to kill him.
Luke informs us that in that perilous moment: “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!” Whereupon the Jews stoned him to death.
The question is, what is the significance – if any – of the fact that Stephen saw Jesus “standing at the right hand of the Father,” and not sitting? After all, it is to be noted that when Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin in Matthew 26, he told them that “hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand.” They clearly understood this as a claim to being deity: “He is guilty of blasphemy!” Many commentators have suggested that they also heard in Jesus’ words a powerful, if implicit, warning that he, as the Danielic Son of Man, was going to come in judgment. While judgment is clearly in the context of Daniel 7, I want to propose that Stephen’s vision very effectively communicated the impending judgment by the imagery of seeing Jesus standing, not sitting, at the right hand.
A bit of background here.
The reference to Jesus being at the right hand of the Father is a direct citation / reference to Psalms 110– “sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” This prophecy is cited, alluded to, and echoed over thirty times in the NT, more than any other OT prophecy. Peter quoted it in Acts 2:29f to show that at his ascension Christ was enthroned in the heavens:
Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’
What is so fascinating, and I think significant, is that in Acts 7, we find the only Biblical reference to Jesus “standing” at the right hand of the Father. We thus have Stephen citing the Psalm and yet, he changes the language from sitting at the right hand to standing at the right hand. Why is that?
Craig Keener poses this very question: “Whereas other passages portray Jesus sitting at God’s right hand (Luke 20:42; Acts 2:33-34; esp. Luke 22:69); why does Stephen emphatically see him standing there (Acts 7:55-56)?” (Craig Keener, Acts Vol 2, Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2013, (1440)
Keener offers a list of the various explanations:
✔ “It suggests his eagerness to return delayed only by the necessity for the Gentile mission.” (1441f).
✔ One may stand in anticipation of receiving someone with whom he is pleased.
✔ Some suggest that standing is the posture for martyrs in heaven and hence Jesus the martyr prefigures Stephen.
✔ The posture is “cultic.”
✔ It is prophetic.
✔ It is “forensic, with Jesus playing the role of advocate,” Or even as judge.
✔ It could apply to those attending God in the heavenly court.
Keener says however, “In view of the other signs of judgment reversal in the passage, it seems likely that the forensic image of advocate, witness, and or judge are paramount.”
I suggest that the last of Keener’s proposals, that Jesus is being depicted as the Judge, is at the forefront of Stephen’s vision. I base this on the fact that – as I propose – Isaiah 2-4 serves as the prophetic background and source of Stephen’s vision. (Keener (p. 1441) briefly mentions Isaiah 3:13 but does not develop the connections).
Consider the following, brief outline of Isaiah 2-4:
Isaiah 2:2f – posits the entire vision of chapters 2-4 for “the last days.” Stephen was, according to Peter in Acts 2:15f (And 2:40f a direct echo of the Song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32:5, which was a prediction of Israel’s last end), living in the last days, the last days of Israel’s covenant world.
Isaiah 2:19 – In Israel’s last days, the Day of the Lord would come:
They shall go into the holes of the rocks, And into the caves of the earth, From the terror of the Lord And the glory of His majesty, When He arises to shake the earth mightily.
To go into the clefts of the rocks, And into the crags of the rugged rocks, From the terror of the Lord And the glory of His majesty, When He arises to shake the earth mightily.
Notice that language of the Lord “arising.” This is the language of judgment.
Isaiah 3:1f – “in those days,” the last days, there would be famine throughout Jerusalem as judgment from the Lord.
The Lord stands up to plead, And stands to judge the people. The Lord will enter into judgment, With the elders of His people And His princes: “For you have eaten up the vineyard; The plunder of the poor is in your houses.
Notice particularly that:
The Lord shall stand up to judge his people.
This would be in the last days
This would be when the Lord would “arise” to shake the earth mightily in the Day of the Lord. And as we will see momentarily, this would be in the Day of the Lord when He would avenge the blood of His saints, the martyrs.
Your men shall fall by the sword, And your mighty in the war. Her gates shall lament and mourn, And she being desolate shall sit on the ground.
The context could hardly be clearer. The time when the Lord would stand up to judge His people, when they would fall by the edge of the sword, would be when the gates of Jerusalem would “lament and mourn.” There would be famine in the land, and no water. The city would be made desolate.” And notice that the judgment would come because the leaders had, “eaten up the vineyard of the Lord” (3:13). Remember that the “vineyard of the Lord was Israel (Isaiah 5), and also remember that in Matthew 21, Jesus told the parable of the Wicked Vineyard workers who killed the Master’s servants, and the Master’s Son.
As a result of killing the Master’s servants and Son, Jesus asked the Pharisees, Scribes and lawyers: “What shall the Master of that vineyard do when he comes?” Here again is a powerful echo of Isaiah 2-4 and the promise of the last days judgment of the wicked Vineyard workers. At the coming of the Lord the blood of the beloved workers and Son would be avenged. This is the Day of the Lord of Isaiah 2:10; 19f. It is AD 70.
According to 4:1f, the motif of “in that day” is continued, and we find this:
V. 4 – When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning, 5 then the Lord will create above every dwelling place of Mount Zion, and above her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day and the shining of a flaming fire by night. For over all the glory there will be a covering. 6 And there will be a tabernacle for shade in the daytime from the heat, for a place of refuge, and for a shelter from storm and rain.
So, “in that day” at that time of the famine and the war, when Jerusalem’s men would fall by the edge of the sword, in the last days, at the Day of the Lord, would be when the Lord would purge the blood guilt from Jerusalem “by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.” All one has to do is to read Matthew 23:29f to know when the vindication of the martyrs in the last days would be, and the context and framework for that; it was to be in the judgment of Jerusalem that occurred in AD 70.
Notice Isaiah’s reference to the men of Jerusalem falling by the edge of the sword. I suggest that Isaiah was in Jesus mind when he described the impending destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 21:23-24:
But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! For there will be great distress in the land and wrath upon this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations. And Jerusalem will be trampled by Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
There are several allusions and echoes of Isaiah in the Olivet Discourse and this helps confirm that Jesus was in fact drawing on Isaiah 2-4. It is even worth noting that shortly after the Olivet Discourse, as he was being led to his death, Jesus quoted verbatim from Isaiah 2:19f to speak of the coming judgment on Jerusalem for killing him (Luke 23:28-31). Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days Day of the Lord was clearly on his mind.
So, Stephen saw Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. This is in seeming contrast to Hebrews 1:1-2 (and a host of other passages that cite Psalms 110) that tells us that after Christ had offered himself as a sacrifice for sin, he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty. And it is in contrast to Acts 2 where Peter likewise said that Christ had sat down at the right hand of the Father. But now, in Acts 7, in response to the persecution of his saints, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand. This seeming “contrast” between sitting and standing is not a true contrast at all. It is the other side of the coin, of the Son being at the right hand, as depicted in Psalms 110.
The Son was to sit at the right hand until his enemies were made his footstool. What Stephen was seeing was that Jesus was standing ready to judge (after all, Psalms 110 depicts Jesus not only as priest, but as King who would come in judgment and fill the valleys with the bodies of the kings who opposed him).
To put this another way, Jesus standing at the right hand is directly related to Luke 19:11f. It depicts the Nobleman having gone to the far country, now having received the kingdom, and rising to return to judge the citizens who had rejected his rule. Thus, what Stephen was seeing was that the Nobleman, having been invested with the kingdom, was now fully prepared to come in judgment of those citizens who had declared, “we will not have this man to rule over us!” (Luke 19:11f).
As suggested, this means that after sitting down at the right hand, having “purged our sin” (Hebrews 1:1-2), in fulfillment of Psalms 110, he was now ready to come to put down his enemies at his return. This means that the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15:24f, when Christ would put down the last enemy, was imminent. If his “standing at the right hand” indicated that he was about to come in judgment, then it was his enemies that were about to be put under him. But, that time of the putting down of his enemies is nothing less than the resurrection.
Acts 7 is an undeniable persecution context. The Jewish leaders were about to kill Stephen; the initial stones had been thrown. As a persecution context, this conjures up Isaiah 3:13-4:4f and the promise that in the last days, the Lord would stand up to judge His people and avenge the blood of the martyrs.
Closing thought: Although the language is not used hundreds of time, nonetheless the language of the Lord standing up is somewhat common in the Tanakh. We have Psalms 109:31 that speaks of YHVH standing up for the righteous. We have the Psalmist (Psalm 35) praying that the Lord would stand up to help him in his time of need. This is “somewhat” related to what we find in Acts 7 and in Isaiah 3. Psalms 82 indisputably depicts God standing as an act of impending judgment. Likewise, in Amos 9:1, the prophet saw the Lord standing by the altar which indicated that judgment on Israel was about to fall. Zechariah 14:4 depicts the Lord “standing on the Mount of Olivet” at the judgment of Jerusalem. (There are a few other scattered references to the Lord standing but not that many. The preponderant use of the idea of the Lord standing is one of readiness to judge).
As is readily apparent from these examples, the imagery of the Lord “standing” especially in Messianic contexts, is undeniably a reference to him standing in readiness to judge. Thus, when Stephen said he saw the Lord standing at the right hand of the throne, this powerfully conveyed the idea that the Lord was going to come – and that not long in coming – in judgment of those who were about to kill him. He knew that Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days when the Lord would stand up to judge His people, was coming.
(I will not develop it here, but, I propose that Stephen recognized the recalcitrance and open rebellion of the Temple authorities, and realized that due to their internecine actions, the Law of Blood Atonement [Numbers 35] was going to be exacted on them by the Lord who was standing at the right hand, ready to avenge. I suggest that Peter was likewise acutely aware of the danger facing the Jews for their bloody crimes, in Acts 3, where he offers them a “way of escape”– i.e. Jesus – See Hebrews 6:18f– for their bloody sins committed in ignorance [Acts 3:17].
For more on this critical subject – which runs throughout the entire NT – see my articles on the importance of the Law of Blood Atonement in the NT.
Isaiah 2-4 was fulfilled when the Lord, who had arisen, came in judgment of Stephen’s murderers, and those who had killed him also. Stephen’s vision of Christ standing, not sitting, at the right hand of the Father powerfully depicts the imminence of that coming judgment.