I was thinking of commenting that the text is sufficiently imprecise that one can rationally conclude that we aren’t 100% sure; and our presuppositions about what is possible will probably determine how we answer. Since a thoughtful response in the negative has been offered, I’ll try offering a response in the affirmative, even though I do not believe the text demands to be interpreted in this way. (and I can appreciate why such contrarian thinking may be unpopular)
The prima facie reading of the text would say that yes, he did.
If someone says he sees person A standing on the right hand of person B, unless there's compelling evidence to believe otherwise, I should conclude that either:
- He's lying
- He sees person A and person B
Stephen has nothing to gain by lying on this occasion, so my preliminary conclusion is that Stephen saw the Father & the Son.
Biblical authors frequently use metaphors. Are there grounds for overturning the prima facie reading in favor of a metaphorical interpretation?
Some of the reasons given for interpreting the passage metaphorically include:
- The view that nobody has seen God
- Noting that “right hand” is a common Biblical metaphor
- Arguments from the nature of God
Let’s consider each in turn:
Nobody has seen God
Statements in John 1:18, John 6:46, and 1 John 4:12 use verbs ὁράω (horaó) & θεάομαι ("theaomai") for "to see" that can be used both in a literal sense (to physically see) and a metaphorical sense (to grasp a concept or deeply understand). (Greek grammar references here and here)
The grammar is fully consistent with either possibility.
Since the author knew the Old Testament, which speaks repeatedly of people seeing God (some examples discussed on this site here, here, here, here, and here), the most straightforward meaning of "to see" in these passages would be akin to the way English uses the phrase "I see your point".
When John wants to emphasize that he physically saw something, he knows how to say so clearly:
“which we have seen [ὁράω] with our own eyes, which we have gazed
[θεάομαι] upon and touched with our own hands” (1 John 1:1)
He’s extremely explicit here to ensure this is not taken metaphorically.
Then what is John saying in the earlier 3 passages? To use a different play on words (that would also likely confuse literalistic readers 2 millennia from now) John is not telling us that people cannot see God; he is telling us: there is more to God than meets the eye.
In any event, it is unambiguous that Stephen claimed to see Jesus; so if one believes Jesus is God, Stephen definitely saw God in glory. Thus, I conclude that the argument that nobody has seen God is unable by itself to compel us to take Stephen’s statement metaphorically.
The Right Hand is a commonly used Biblical metaphor
I agree, it is. The passage probably doesn’t give us enough information to plot the Cartesian coordinates of anyone in heaven. But whether Jesus is standing to the right of God or exercising God’s power (in either case “God” must be a reference to the Father), Stephen still mentions seeing Jesus in that setting, and refers to God’s glory & God’s hand/power being visible in that setting. Why does Stephen conclude that Jesus is in God’s presence/glory (i.e. Jesus is God’s right-hand man) if God is absent?
If what Stephen saw was only the Son in glory (not that that’s insignificant), he chose a very strange way to express it. For one so well-versed in the Old Testament as he was, his description is remarkably unlike Old Testament theophanies.
Arguments from the nature of God
I could try to answer this question by introducing a theological argument, but to do so would risk circularity if the theological argument derives from the texts we are trying to interpret.
As has been noted in other posts (e.g. the comments here), the Old Testament appearances of God could be pre-mortal appearances of Jesus. The viability of this theory depends upon the meaning of still more passages. This would certainly help resolve apparent discrepancies between “nobody has seen the Father” & numerous Old Testament claims to have seen God.
As noted above, I’m not convinced “physically see” is what John has in mind when discussing people seeing God, but even if all Old Testament theophanies were visions of Jesus, not the Father, that doesn’t mean Stephen didn’t see the Father. It would mean that either Stephen didn’t see the Father OR Stephen’s vision is a unique event in the Biblical record.
Since we’re discussing a book that teaches the incarnation and resurrection of God, I don’t think “being a unique event” by itself disqualifies the possibility of an event’s reality.
Let’s try an abductive argument
So far I’ve just made a very long case that the passage is at best uncertain. Let’s try an abductive argument. Can the listeners’ actions tell us how they understood Stephen’s claim? In other words, what interpretation of the passage best explains why the crowd did what they did?
The people stoned him in a furious rage. Possible motives include:
He called them murderers
He claimed that Jesus was greater than the prophets—that Jesus, not Abraham or Moses, was on the right hand of God.
He claimed to see God
I can see any of these eliciting furor from the Sanhedrin and the crowd.
However, their response to 1 & 2 was not to attack him with stones but to attack him with words (see Acts 7:54). If calling them murderers or claiming Jesus was greater than the prophets was sufficient cause for stoning, verse 52 should be the end of the speech.
Apparently, then, it was Stephen’s vision, not his claims about the Sanhedrin or Jesus, that put them over the edge. They covered their ears and attacked him with stones because they believed he had committed blasphemy. #3 doesn’t happen until 56, and that is when the crowd’s murderous rage breaks.
I don’t claim this is a conclusive proof—it’s an abductive one—but it appears that the crowd at the time understood Stephen to have claimed to see God. Since they didn’t believe Jesus was God, they didn’t stone him for claiming to see Jesus. They stoned him for claiming to see Jesus and someone else.
This suggests Stephen claimed to see someone Divine besides the Son. Someone to who’s the authority the Son submitted. That would be the Father (see John 14:28)
I can think of a whole list of theological reasons to take a stance on this question.
But from the text itself, I see no definitive reason to overturn the prima facie reading, that Stephen saw the Father.