Why would a nice guy like Stephen get arrested and then executed, either by the verdict of the Sanhedrin or mob violence? Acts 6:8 tells us he was a miracle-worker, and the people seemed to love the believers among them who healed their ailments (Acts 5:12a, 15-16, 26), but something seems to have occurred here that kept Stephen from being protected by the power of the people. What was it?
The Jewish authorities had tried on two different occasions recorded by Luke to stop the preaching of the Gospel, first with a warning (Acts 4:1-21), and secondly after a physical beating (Acts 5:17-40), although the high priestly family of Annas had a more severe penalty in mind (Acts 5:17, 33). These may or may not have been the only two occurrences before the time of Acts 6, but they are the only two that Luke records. In any case it seems that the high priest sought other measures to get what he wanted. He had tried to infiltrate the apostolic community by sending in spies in an effort to either destroy the new faith or bring it under his control (Acts 5:1-11, 13a), but this wasn’t working.
Saul (Paul) seems to have had a close relationship with the high priest (Acts 9:1), as he later tells the story (Acts 22:5), and may have been an officer of the Sanhedrin, in that he not only represented the high council at Jerusalem but in other cities as well (Acts 26:10-12). Saul (Paul) even explains later that he “cast his voice” (vote or pebble) against those who claimed the name of Jesus (Acts 26:10). Black pebbles were used to condemn while white were used for acquittal (cp. Revelation 2:17). So, Paul was not simply an average Jew who hated Messianic Jews. He was a man on a mission (Acts 8:3; cp. Genesis 49:27), and the mission he was on was provided him by the high priest (Acts 9:1).
Stephen, therefore, went up against more than a few brethren with opposing beliefs, as he debated in Jerusalem at the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:9), whose members came from (in counterclockwise order) Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia. Whether he was aware of the high priest’s new conspiracy of entrapment is not said, but Stephen preached Jesus and no one was able to resist his wisdom (Acts 6:10), not even the member named Saul of Tarsus from the province of Cilicia! Imagine, the very upwardly mobile Jew, who prided himself in the zeal he had for the traditions of the fathers (Galatians 1:14), could not oppose Stephen’s wisdom in debate! This must have infuriated Paul, and, as he later testifies, it was this very covetousness that slew him when he considered Christ and what occurred to him on the road to Damascus (Romans 7:7, 10-11; cp. Acts 9:9).
Luke tells us of a conspiracy in Acts 6:11 whereby certain men were used as false witnesses (cp. Acts 23:12-15; 25:2-3). Such things were done with the approval of and probably at the command of the high priest (cp. Matthew 26:59-60). So, the “witnesses” in Acts 6:11 were brought in not only to be used in the high council, but, as was previously not done, to stir up the people against Stephen (Acts 6:12a), saying that they heard Stephen speak blasphemy against Moses and God (Acts 6:11b). Only after this was done did the elders and scribes come upon Stephen and arrest him. Now the rulers of Jerusalem have what they never had up to this point in time. They have the people behind them. Now, they could act without fear of a popular uprising against them.
The false witnesses brought formal charges against Stephen in the presence of the Jewish high council, the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:13), saying that he had spoken blasphemy against the Temple (God) and the Law (Moses), in that he claimed that Jesus would not only change the Law but come and destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14) as well.
What follows may be a bit puzzling for some, because why would anyone seek to kill someone who had the face of an angel (Acts 6:15)? The fact is, however, Luke’s statement is a Hebraism, which denotes one whose apparent demeanor is evidence of sincerity, soberness and fearlessness due to confidence in God. Similar occurrences in the Old Testament can be found in Genesis 33:10 for denoting majesty and glory, as though one had the face of God. Other examples can be found in 2Samuel 14:17 and 19:27 for wisdom as though one had the face of the Angel of God (the one who became Jesus). Such was Stephen’s appearance, as he prepared to testify before the high priest and chief elders of the Sanhedrin.