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Acts 7:54-60 (NASB):

54 Now when they heard this, they were infuriated, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56 and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they shouted with loud voices, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one mind. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.

What did Stephen mean when he said "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!"? What was Stephen expecting to happen to his spirit in a literal sense? That his spirit would literally go to the presence of Jesus? Or that his spirit would go elsewhere? What were Stephen's beliefs on the state of the dead and the afterlife?


Related questions

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  • peoples spirits go immediately to a place of punishment (not hell) or to Jesus' side when they die
    – user35803
    Mar 20, 2021 at 23:30

5 Answers 5

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+50

Testimony

I agree that Stephen's statement is most clearly understood as an affirmation of Jesus' Deity:

  • He is quoting Psalm 31:5, addressed to Jehovah
  • Eccl. 12:7 indicates the spirit returns to God
  • The parallel declaration by Jesus (see Luke 23:46, written by the same author) directs this statement to God

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Timing

In recent reading linked from another question I found interesting the argument that this statement by Stephen indicates that he expects to be immediately with Jesus. While this is possibly true, I do not believe it is demonstrated by this passage.

As noted in other answers, Stephen's parting prayer is very similar to Jesus' statement:

Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit (see Luke 23:46)

And given that Acts is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke, the author clearly noticed this. But did Jesus return immediately to His Father and/or to heaven?

John 20:17 gives us good reason to believe He had not:

Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father

Jesus' ascension to His Father would still be a few days away (or at least 36 hours) when He made the statement on the cross. As such, the statement at the very least implies eventual reunion but not need imply an immediate reunion.

Whether Stephen expected to immediately be with Jesus is not stated; he believed that he would be with Jesus at some point.

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The Afterlife

Stephen's extensive discourse on the history of Israel (see Acts 7), and the description of him as "full of faith and of the Holy Ghost" (see Acts 6:5) suggests he was well-informed in matters of theology, and would have known the Jewish/Christian teachings on the afterlife. There is no reason to believe he would have held views on the afterlife strikingly different from his faithful contemporaries.

I have written on the contemporary & near-contemporary Jewish & Christian beliefs on the afterlife here and here.

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To Receive

The verb translated "receive" is δέχομαι ("dechomai"). It is the same verb employed by Jesus in the Mission Discourse in Matthew 10. The parallels between Stephen & Matthew 10 are so striking I think it very likely Stephen has this teaching in mind (whether through oral or written record is a matter for another question).

Let's walk through several of the verses in Matthew 10 to observe the parallels:

17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;

18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them...

That's what is happening in Acts 6-7--Stephen is brought before the council.

25 It is enough for the disiple that he be as his master

Stephen is walking in the footsteps of his master:

  • Being accused of blasphemy against God & holy places (compare Matthew 26:61-65 & Acts 6:13)
  • Pleading for the reception of his spirit (compare Luke 23:46 & Acts 7:59)
  • Asking for forgiveness for his attackers (compare Luke 23:34 & Acts 7:60)
  • Dying for the truth (compare Luke 23:46 & Acts 7:60)

28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Stephen is indeed fearless before his accusers; he is not dissuaded by the physical harm they can (and do) inflict upon him.

34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

This is actively happening during Stephen's sermon.

36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Stephen and his audience are of the house of Israel--he has just recounted the finer points of their common family history--and it's not the Romans, but members of his own house of Israel, who are attacking him.

38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.

Stephen is essentially taking up his cross here; he is quite literally losing his life for the cause of Christ.

40 He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

Same word, dechomai. Usage: "properly, to receive in a welcoming (receptive) way" (see here). Stephen has received Jesus, and now is asking Jesus to receive him.

32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.

33 But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

Stephen uses his second-to-last breath to confess Jesus before men (his final breath being a plea for forgiveness for his attackers, see above), trusting Jesus to confess him (Stephen) before the Father.

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Conclusion

Whether or not Stephen expected a reunion now or later, he knows that his future is secure in Jesus' hands. Far more important the precisely when Stephen will meet the "Just One" (see Acts 7:52), Stephen knows that he is prepared to meet Him.

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Just before Jesus died on the cross, in Luke 23:46

Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

Before Stephen died, in Acts 7:59

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."

The parallel is striking. Stephen recognized Jesus' divinity, trusting Jesus to take his spirit away from his suffering body, away from the midst of the horrifying stoning process that was going on.

What were Stephen's beliefs regarding the dead?

Psalm 104:29 NASB 1995

You hide Your face, they are dismayed; You take away their spirit, they expire And return to their dust.

What were Stephen's beliefs regarding the afterlife?

John 11:23 “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.

24Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Was Stephen expecting that his spirit would go to the presence of Jesus or some other place?

Stephen expected that his spirit would be safe in Jesus' hands.

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  • I like this answer. However, I'm still confused by the last sentence: Stephen expected that his spirit would be safe in Jesus' hands. Do you mean this in a metaphorical sense, or do you mean that Jesus would literally hold Stephen's spirit in his hands? Mar 7, 2021 at 18:18
  • It's a metaphor: in Jesus' control.
    – Tony Chan
    Mar 7, 2021 at 18:21
  • That's what I thought. But then, what was Stephen expecting to happen to his spirit (literally, not metaphorically)? Mar 7, 2021 at 18:24
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    Nothing will happen to his spirit until the resurrection at the last day.
    – Tony Chan
    Mar 7, 2021 at 18:27
  • Good answer, +1. Simple, uncomplicated.
    – Dottard
    Mar 8, 2021 at 3:06
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What did Stephen mean when he said “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” in Acts 7:59?

Speaking about man’s death, Ecclesiastes 12:7 states,

Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NASB)

7 Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NET Bible)

7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it.

When the spirit or the breath of life returns to God, the body returns to where it came from--the earth. The spirit/ breath of life returns to where it came from--to God, this does not mean that something tangible returns to Jesus or God in heaven. Rather it means that the gift of life or hope for resurrection rests with Jesus.

All authority has been given me, including the power of the resurrection

Matthew 28:18 (NASB)

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me

John 5:28-29 (NASB)

28 Do not be amazed at this; for [a]a time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29 and will come out: those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the bad deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

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In Acts 7:59, the Godly Stephen was praying to Jesus in the words of the psalm:

  • Ps 31:5 - Into Your hands I commit my spirit; You have redeemed me, O LORD, God of truth.

Note that Stephen therefore, acknowledges Jesus as Jehovah/YHWH of the OT and addresses this prayer to Him as such.

It also appears that Stephen was alluding to numerous passages of the OT that describe God giving the "breath of life", the defining factor between death and life:

  • Job 33:4, The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life.
  • Gen 1:30, And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground--everything that has the breath of life in it--I give every green plant for food." And it was so.
  • Gen 6:17, I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.
  • Gen 7:15, Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. See also Gen 7:22, Rev 11:11, Isa 2:22, Dan 5:23, Josh 10:40, etc.

Thus, all living creatures (literally souls) have the breath of life. Even animals are described as "souls", eg, Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:19, 9:4, 5, 10, 15, 16, etc. Gen 1:20, 21, 24, 30, 2:19, 9:4, 5, 10, 15, 16, etc.

Further, when a living creature dies, this "breath of life" (whatever it is) returns to God who gave it, eg,

  • Ps 146:4 - When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish. ("thought perish", KJV)
  • Eccl 12:7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit/breath [of life] returns to God who gave it.

Stephen's prayer is quintessential Hebrew idiom for death and God recovering the "breath of life" common to all living creatures. It will be restored at the resurrection as per 1 Cor 15.

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  • and God recovering the "breath of life" - but Stephen directed his prayer to Jesus. Does it follow that Stephen believed that Jesus was God? Mar 7, 2021 at 22:16
  • 3
    @SpiritRealmInvestigator - some would argue that. We have many examples of prayer to Jesus in the NT (another question!) despite the injunction to pray to no one other than God.
    – Dottard
    Mar 7, 2021 at 22:19
  • The question has already been asked by the way: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/62358/… Mar 7, 2021 at 22:22
  • Jesus is Stephen's Lord. Jesus now, ascended, has life as the Father does and is at God's right hand. This makes Jesus no more God than when he was dead in the dirt, but it does make him just as God in terms of authority God gave him as His glorious representative and son. Stephen having seen Jesus in this heavenly vision would be a natural response to ask him to receive his spirit on behalf of God. +1
    – steveowen
    Mar 8, 2021 at 4:29
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Stephen is acknowledging Jesus' divinity, quoting Psalm 31:5 "Into your hands I commit my spirit", where the referent is God.

Does he mean that his created soul will continue life in the presence of Jesus? Yes, of course, for Jesus tells that whoever believes in Him will pass from death to life (cf. John 5:24). Otherwise Paul's longing for dying and being with Christ through this death (Phil. 1:23), which he considers more desirable than being alive, loses all sense and logic, for if dying means annihilation of both human consciousness and bodily life, then it cannot be more desirable at all than continuation of life, because Paul means that after death he will be in a fuller and thorougher presence of his beloved Christ than while alive, but if his consciousness/soul would co-die and co-disintegrate with body, then this statement would be groundless.

That soul co-dies with body was an old heresy of thnetopsychism. Unfortunately this heresy is very popular also now. Even those Christians, who, in theory, believe in post-mortem life of soul, in reality and in real psychological disposition and apprehension do not feel it, and thus neither they are outraged when they hear about the heretical doctrine of soul's co-dying with body. How can Catholics and Orthodox ask deceased saints to intercede for them to God, if those saints' souls have co-died with bodies? And then all that many-centuries' tradition of saints' souls post mortem relative bliss and boldness in front of the seat of God will prove a superstition of highest scales, which is both counter-intuitive and unscriptural.

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