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In the Book of Acts, the Jews became enraged against Stephen (filled with the Spirit):

Acts 7:60: "Then falling on his knees, [Stephen] cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them!' Having said this, he fell asleep" (emphasis added).

Why is Stephen's obvious death by stoning consider "sleep" in Scripture?

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  • See also Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11-14, Acts 13:36, 1 Corinthians 11:30, 15:51, Ephesians 5:14, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 5:10.
    – Lucian
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 17:32

7 Answers 7

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Why is Stephen's obvious death by stoning consider "sleep" in Scripture?

Using the word sleep gives the true hope that we have in Christ. Those that have passed from death to life. Their death it's like one who is sleeping right now. The hope is they will be awakened in Christ.

It seems every time the word asleep that is in reference to those who died in Christ or those who have died in faith in the OT They will be awakened out of the sleep of death at certain times.

And now, Christ hath risen out of the dead -- the first-fruits of those sleeping he became, 1:Corinthians 15:20<

Behold, I tell you a secret: we indeed will not all sleep, but we will all be changed; 1Corinthians a15: 51<

But we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, concerning those having fallen asleep, so that you should not be grieved, just as also the rest, those having no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13<

for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God will bring with Him those asleep through Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 4:14<

“Where is the promise of His coming?” they will ask. “Ever since our fathers fell asleep, everything continues as it has from the beginning of creation 2 Peter 3:4<

For indeed David, having served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was added to his fathers, and saw decay. Acts 13:36<

For if the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Also then those having fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 1 Corinthians 15: 16-18<

For as indeed in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in the own order: 1 Corinthians 15:22<

Then they will be awakened out of their sleep.

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  • Good answer +1.
    – Dottard
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 21:26
  • Beautiful! You could even add Jesus' own words at John 11:11.
    – agarza
    Commented Oct 11, 2021 at 22:37
  • Agarza, Thanks for the encouraging comment! I also love the verse you added and here it is in print. Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to wake him up.”
    – Sherrie
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 2:46
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”Why is Stephen's obvious death by stoning consider "sleep" in Scripture?” - because that’s what *scripture’ tells us (Believers) to ‘think’ of ‘death’.

Luke (author of the book of Acts), a doctor, was using the same terminology that Jesus used ….

LUKE 8:52 Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.”

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"Sleep" and "sleeping" is VERY commonly used as a metaphor for death in the NT. This has no crept into English with our word "cemetery" from the Greek (via Latin), koimeterion = a place of sleeping.

Note the numerous times "sleep" is used to denote "death" in the NT: John 11:11, Acts 7:60, 13:36, 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:6, 18, 20, 51, 2 Peter 3:4, 1 Thess 4:13, 14, 27:52, etc.

Similarly, Jesus' resurrection of the dead is said to be an "awakening from sleep" in places such as John 11:11, 1 Cor 15:58, 1 Thess 4:15-17, etc.

Thus, the use of "sleep" in Acts 7:60 is consistent with this useage in the NT.

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  • This is a good answer. As pointed out the verb in question in the Greek was apparently used both as a nice way to say "died", and it was also sometimes used to indicate actual sleep. But it is also true that in Christ we sleep and will one day awaken in the resurrection, and so as Christians it has that meaning too. Good that this answer captures all of this!
    – bob
    Commented Oct 12, 2021 at 15:45
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As noted, sleep refers to the state of 'being alive in Christ' while physically dead. Stephen would live again in his Saviour just as all the OT saints etc.

This sleep state is contrasted with the actual dead who have no hope - being outside of Christ. They are referred to as perishing.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1Cor 1:18

After the second death as Revelations 20:6,14 describes, these souls will perish and not sleep during death.

No, I tell you. But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:5

This is the fate of any who will not choose Christ's means to true life which is graciously offered to all men for he indeed, died for all.

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New Living Translation Acts 7:60

He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.

The end. This sounds terminal and hopeless.

On the other hand, NIV Acts 7:

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Granted, it is just a euphemism for being dead. The connotations are very different. Stephen didn't struggle to die. After being stoned, he rested in peace and looking forward to seeing Jesus :) Unlike Paul who was looking on with agitation, Stephen was blessed with rest. It wasn't the end. Stephen would wake up again.

Why is the word "sleep" used to describe Stephen's death by stoning (Acts 7:60)?

To bring out certain positive connotations associated with martyrdom.

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Also the Bible sometimes uses the expression "sleep" to denote the person being in God's memory and his desire to "wake" them by means of a resurrection through Jesus. See John 11:11-15, 25,26, 40-44.

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The “key” to understanding the death experience in scripture is, I believe, found in 1 Corinthians 15. Unfortunately, most people understand this passage as referring to resurrection:

[1Co 15:51-57 NLT] (51) But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! (52) It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. (53) For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. (54) Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: "Death is swallowed up in victory. (55) O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (56) For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. (57) But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.

In reality, (in my humbler than thou opinion), he is revealing a “wonderful secret”… that death is not going to be the experience of everyone. In the past, everyone died. Not so in the future.

Now, the first century Christians, when they spoke of “death”, they knew enough from Paul’s writings that it wasn’t really death, as a permanent fate, but only a nap; “sleep”:

[Jhn 11:11-14 NLT] (11) Then he said, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up." (12) The disciples said, "Lord, if he is sleeping, he will soon get better!" (13) They thought Jesus meant Lazarus was simply sleeping, but Jesus meant Lazarus had died. (14) So he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead.

[1Th 4:13-14 NLT] (13) And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. (14) For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.

This was because since righteous Abel, all who died went to a holding cell referred to in Hebrew as “Sheol” but in Greek, hADES to await the day of judgment. So this is the picture:

Abel is murdered by his brother, Cain he sleeps the sleep of death in hADES Jesus descends as a “breath of life” to all in hADES and Abel is carried by angels to the Happy Place to accompany Jesus at his second coming. So death, sleep, resurrection.

But the “secret” of which Paul writes is that Jesus destroys hADES. The “sleep” step is eliminated. hADES is destroyed in the same fire that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple:

[Rev 20:14 NLT] (14) Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death.

So the “mystery”/secret of which he speaks is the fact that since the first century, sleeping in death/hADES is over with and the saints from that time on are immediately transformed. No more sleep nonsense.

[1Co 15:51-57 NKJV] (51) Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-- (52) in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (53) For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal >[must] put on immortality. (54) So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (55) "O Death, where >[is] your sting? O Hades, where >[is] your victory?" (56) The sting of death >[is] sin, and the strength of sin >[is] the law. (57) But thanks >[be] to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And Paul says that not only won’t the saints any more have to sleep for thousands of years, they won’t have to sleep at all! And yet they will be changed/transformed.

For more information, please visit my Quora Space, Biblical Eschatology

The victory of 1 Corinthians 15 is not resurrection but rather the casting of hADES into the lake of fire so that the saints are immortal, no longer subject to death and not requiring resurrection. They pass immediately from this vale of tears into God’s presence because they have become immortal:

[Jhn 5:24 NKJV] (24) "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.

[1Jo 3:14 NKJV] (14) We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love >[his] brother abides in death.

[Rev 21:4 NKJV] (4) "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."

All of this was accomplished in the first century:

[1Co 15:50-57 NKJV] (50) Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (51) Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-- (52) in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (53) For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal >[must] put on immortality. (54) So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (55) "O Death, where >[is] your sting? O Hades, where >[is] your victory?" (56) The sting of death >[is] sin, and the strength of sin >[is] the law. (57) But thanks >[be] to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

[2Ti 1:10 NASB95] [10] but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

[Heb 2:14-15 NASB95] [14] Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, [15] and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.

[Jhn 11:23-26 NASB95] [23] Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." [24] Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." [25] Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Answer summary:

Prior to the abolition of death, the righteous dead sleeping in Hades had to have their old body resurrected and changed, but in the Kingdom Age (the current age) the saints are immediately changed. I think that there were various appearances described in different ways, to my reading, not entirely consistently, but hopefully this answer will help to see why they are different. Classifying the different appearances is impossible with multiple gospels (John, Mark, Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians 15 and others.

Stephen lived prior to Christ's resurrection as first born from the dead:

[Col 1:18 KJV] [18] And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all [things] he might have the preeminence.

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