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Acts 7:54-58 (NRSV):

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Did Stephen see both Jesus and the Father?

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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)

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Face value

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.

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Metaphor

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. He called them murderers

  2. He claimed that Jesus was greater than the prophets—that Jesus, not Abraham or Moses, was on the right hand of God.

  3. 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)

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Conclusion

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.

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  • There have been quite a few questions on the site on similar issues. I tried to link them all through this post--I found five, there might be more worth adding. – Hold To The Rod Feb 26 at 4:07
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    Excellent and very detailed analysis of the passage. I really liked the fact that you developed your argument step by step, trying to consider all the possibilities as you went, and acknowledging the merits and limitations of each possible interpretative stance on the passage. – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 26 at 4:26
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Did Stephen see the Father?

No, not technically.

John 6:46 New International Version

No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.

Human eyes and brain are incapable of seeing and perceiving the original form of the Father.

In another sense, Stephen did see the Father according to John 14:9b

Anyone who has seen me [Jesus] has seen the Father.

What exactly did Stephen see?

Acts 7:55

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Matthew 26:64 English Standard Version

Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Mighty One
δυνάμεως (dynameōs)
Noun - Genitive Feminine Singular
Strong's Greek 1411: From dunamai; force; specially, miraculous power.

Stephen saw Jesus and next to Him, some glorious form of God-power.

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Stephen saw a vision in the spirit. In a vision anything is 'seeable', but this matters not about whether he saw the Father or not.

The verse noted doesn't say 'Father' anywhere - it says God. Jesus is at the right of God.

We know that the one God is the Father from 1 Cor 4:6

We also see that Stephen saw the glory of God. This could mean many things - Jesus is the glory of God. Also,

the glory of God gives it light Rev 21:23

was filled with smoke from the glory of God 15:8

What Stephen saw was this glory and the ascended, glorified human Jesus there too.

From other texts we understand that seeing can also mean knowing and in fact is often the preferred intention.

He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9

7 If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him.”

To see means understand and know with both heart and mind - the eyes of the face have little to do with this seeing.

"Where is Your Father?" they asked Him. "You do not know Me or My Father," Jesus answered. "If you knew Me, you would know My Father as well." John 8:19

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. John 1:18

Having seen this vision, Stephen was able to know God all the more and see his ascendant Lord who was dead and now alive, with God at last!

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