Stephen's Vision

Byzantine Medallion

Psalm 110

The Old Testament prophesies that the Messiah will be seated at the right hand of God the Father:

  • The LORD said to my Lord,
    “Sit at My right hand,
    Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
    The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.
    Rule in the midst of Your enemies!
    Your people shall be volunteers
    In the day of Your power;
    In the beauties of holiness, from the womb of the morning,
    You have the dew of Your youth.
    The LORD has sworn
    And will not relent,
    “You are a priest forever
    According to the order of Melchizedek.”
    The Lord is at Your right hand;
    He shall execute kings in the day of His wrath.
    He shall judge among the nations,
    He shall fill the places with dead bodies,
    He shall execute the heads of many countries.
    He shall drink of the brook by the wayside;
    Therefore He shall lift up the head.”
  • (Psalm 110:1-7).

Stephen's Vision

The martyr Stephen gazed up into heaven and saw Jesus, the Messiah, just where He had been prophesied to be:

  • But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand ['ek dexion'] of God, and said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!'.”
  • (Acts 7:55-56).

Some people who are otherwise disposed toward literal interpretation of the Bible, draw the line at this. Some see Jesus as a Crown Prince, a King who has not yet come into His Kingdom, a ruler who does not rule, His Messianic reign not yet having begun. Stephen saw something different. Since he did not see what they think he should have seen, they start 'spiritualizing.' Stephen's vision also creates problems for the 'Oneness Pentecostals, who have been nick-named 'Jesus-only', on account of their claim that Jesus is the Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Now, looking over Stephen's shoulder, forgetting their own claim that Jesus is the Father, they demand to know, does God the Father have a right hand?

Surely Jesus does; no one ever reported there was anything wrong with His right hand: "Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, 'I am willing; be cleansed.'" (Matthew 8:3). He rose from the grave with hand intact: "'Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself.  Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.'" (Luke 24:39).  He ascended bodily into heaven, no observer reporting He lost a hand in a collision with a Boeing 747: "Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight." (Acts 1:9). 'So is Jesus the Son standing at the right hand of Jesus the Father, like the Doublemint Twins? An 'idol' is any god crafted by man, who does not enjoy the ability to make gods: "Will a man make gods for himself, which are not gods?" (Jeremiah 16:20). A mental figment can be an idol just as surely as a stone monolith. What could be more idolatrous than the logically incoherent picture of 'Jesus-only'...ever whirring around to be at His own right hand? It is clear on its face that Stephen's vision entails a relation, and thus of necessity also a distinction, between Father and Son:

Confronted with this unsuitable state of affairs, some 'Oneness' Pentecostals hoot and holler, mocking the very possibility of a vision of God.  Was Stephen's vision Biblically possible?:

LogoThose readers who have encountered 'Oneness' Pentecostals will not be surprised that some remain unmoved at the recitation of the visions of God experienced by Old and New Testament saints. No matter how many of these you list, this faction still insist that Stephen cannot have seen anything, but merely felt moved to deliver himself of a vacuous platitude...that Jesus is God and He has a mighty right hand! But the Bible does say that Stephen saw something.  He "gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God"!

It is difficult to confirm from the Bible that "the glory of God" is invisible: "The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel." (Exodus 24:17).

What does the "glory of God" look like? Ezekiel got a glimpse of it:

"And above the firmament over their heads was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like a sapphire stone; on the likeness of the throne was a likeness with the appearance of a man high above it. Also from the appearance of His waist and upward I saw, as it were, the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD." (Ezekiel 1:26-29).

Ezekiel, like Stephen, saw something, which he could, and did, describe using spatial language. The relation of 'what he saw' to 'what is there' is not simple, but the vision is real and has meaning.

This "glory of God" isn't a faint Tinker-belle glimmer, its flickerings missed if you blink, but a manifestation so powerful it has driven folks right out onto the sidewalk: "And it came to pass, when the priests came out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not continue ministering because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD." (1 Kings 8:10-11).

In using directional signals relative to the "glory of God", Stephen was following a well-worn Biblical tradition: "And behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east. His voice was like the sound of many waters; and the earth shone with His glory. It was like the appearance of the vision which I saw — like the vision which I saw when I came to destroy the city. The visions were like the vision which I saw by the River Chebar; and I fell on my face.  And the glory of the LORD came into the temple by way of the gate which faces toward the east." (Ezekiel 43:2-4).  Ezekiel saw "the glory of the God of Israel" approach from the east, not from the west. So it is possible to spot the "glory of God" relative to compass direction. It's not like it's invisible!

The whole point of the "glory of God" is to be a visible manifestation of God's presence, a sign of His mercy.  To assure the children in the wilderness of His leading, He opened a window onto this dark and dismal world, allowing a minute fraction of the radiant glory of the Father of lights to stream into our lower realm: "Then the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people." (Leviticus 9:23).  It is far from obvious how the "glory of God" could serve its intended purpose were it invisible.

In their quest to rid the Bible of Stephen's corrosive vision, 'Oneness' apologists set fundamental Bible truths about God at variance with God's fondness for revealing Himself through visions.  Can tying God's hands with His omnipresence and incorporeality keep Him from revealing Himself to man as He promised Moses He would do, through visions?: "Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream." (Numbers 12:6)? Of course not!  If God in His mercy condescends to our weakness by revealing Himself in a manner we can apprehend, then we should learn from His self-revelation as grateful students, not 'correcting' the material to our liking as imperious editors.  Biblical visions of God are not lying phantasms sent by demons, but true self-revelations of the living God, stamped with His love, proportioned to our earth-bound frailty.

The Greek word 'dexios' used in Acts 7:55 means 'at the right hand side, in close proximity'.  Not a vague, diffuse symbol of 'power,' here is another Biblical use of the same phrase: "Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right ['ek dexion'] and another on the left." (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27, Luke 23:33). Though airy theosophy about 'at the right hand' as a 'symbol' of 'power' is a frequent recourse of 'Oneness' Pentecostals who hope to spiritualize Stephen's vision away, there's no ambiguity about what Stephen reported seeing, nor reason to discount his testimony.

The word literally expresses a spatial relationship, by extension a political relationship, of ruling through deputed power: "And He said to her, 'What do you wish?' She said to Him, 'Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand ['ek dexion'] and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.'" (Matthew 20:21). There's no problem, in Luke 1:11, understanding where the angel was standing relative to the altar: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side ['ek dexion'] of the altar of incense."  This is the same phrase used in Acts 7:55.

The image of sharing the throne, seated at the right hand of the sovereign, was widely recognizable in the ancient world.  An example from Jewish history: "When the wedding was over, Alexander [Balas] wrote to Jonathan, the high priest, and desired him to come to Ptolemais.  So when he came to these kings, and had made them magnificent presents, he was honoured by them both. Alexander compelled him also to put off his own garment, and to take a purple garment, and made him sit with him on his throne; and commanded his captains that they should go with him into the middle of the city, and proclaim that it was not permitted to any one to speak against him, or to give him any disturbance." (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XIII, Chapter IV. 2)

God has always revealed Himself to man in figure and vision. The seventy elders of Israel saw God: "Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." (Exodus 24:9-10). The relation between percept, what is experienced, and what is real is complex,-- which is also the case with every-day sight. We don't grasp reality entire with our eyes, not even the physical reality to which our eye-sight is proportioned.

These visions which God has granted to man cannot be construed as snapshots, showing Him, true-to-life, relaxing at home. Yet none of these visions is without meaning. Why does God speak to man in visions, instead of giving it to us straight? A common conjecture is that we can't take it straight: "One would likely then imagine that the heavens beyond really are filled with bands of lions and horses, that the divine praises are, in effect, great moos, that flocks of birds take wing there or that there are other kinds of creatures all about or even more dishonorable material things...But if one looks at the truth of the matter, the sacred wisdom of scripture becomes evident, for, when the heavenly intelligences are represented with forms, great providential care is taken to offer no insult to the divine powers, as one might say, and we ourselves are spared a passionate dependence upon images which have something of the lowly and the vulgar about them. Now there are two reasons for creating types for the typeless, for giving shape to what is actually without shape. First, we lack the ability to be directly raised up to conceptual contemplations. We need our own upliftings that come naturally to us and which can raise before us the permitted forms of the marvelous and unformed sights." (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy, Chapter Two, 137D-140A).

What did Stephen see? He saw something like what the elders of Israel saw. Is this vision a snapshot of the seating arrangements in heaven? No, yet what does this vision mean? Nothing at all, just a truism about God's mighty right hand? No, Stephen's vision shows a relation between God the Father and Jesus Christ, and a relation is not possible between one term. It had been prophesied that the Messiah would wind up just where He did: "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool." (Psalm 110:1). Stephen saw Jesus Christ, the Messiah, just where He ought to be, ruling through power flowing to Him from God the Father.

David's Son

The Lord applied Psalm 110 to Himself:

  • While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, 'What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?' They said to Him, 'The Son of David.' He said to them, 'How then does David in the Spirit call Him "Lord," saying: "The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool'"? If David then calls Him "Lord," how is He his Son?'”
  • (Matthew 22:41-45; Mark 12:35-36; Luke 20:41-44).

Jesus used similar language when interrogated by the high priest, speaking of His Second Coming:

"Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62).

At the Right Hand

The evangelists preached this prophecy as fulfilled. The session at the right hand, and Jesus' high priestly ministry of intercession, are current realities in this time zone between the two advents:

  • So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.”
  • (Mark 16:19).

  • "Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool."'”
  • (Acts 2:33-35).

This reality was a popular theme of apostolic preaching, understood always as a present tense reality, not just a promise for the future:

  • “Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us."
  • (Romans 8:34).
  • "...which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come."
  • (Ephesians 1:20-21).
  • "If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God."
  • (Colossians 3:1).
  • "...who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high..."
  • (Hebrews 1:3).
  • "But to which of the angels has He ever said: 'Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool'?"
  • (Hebrews 1:13).
  • "Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man."
  • (Hebrews 8:1-2).
  • "But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool."
  • (Hebrews 10:12-13).
  • "...looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
  • (Hebrews 12:2).
  • "...through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him."”
  • (1 Peter 3:21-22).

The Son of God The Beloved Son
At the Right Hand Stephen's vision
High Priest Ancient of Days
Not Alone The Lamb and His reading list
The Father AND the Son Our Home
Know and See What did the Apostles preach?
My Companion Covenant with David
My Father and I Sweat-drops of Blood
An Advocate Intercessor
Sender-Sent I'm my Own Father
'Oneness' Revised Psalms Proceeded Forth
I commit My spirit I-Thou
I go to My Father Confession
I will declare Your name Call no Man Father
Not Mine Before my Father
Anointed One No one Knows
Servant Bruised
Abraham and Isaac Let Us Make Man

Some interpreters, critical scholars and adherents of the new religious movements, want to make of Jesus' exaltation the moment when He became Messiah, or God, etc. But this is incomplete; as the Christmas carol says, Jesus was Lord at His birth: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." (Matthew 1:23). Although His session at the right hand marks the inauguration of His Messianic reign, many owned Him as their King prior to that: "And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43). His exaltation did not make of Him something essentially new which He was not before; the Messianic office is a job description, not a 'nature:'

"Most important of all, what is said of Jesus is not that His nature was changed, from human to divine, but that His status was changed, from Suffering Servant to reigning Lord. Messiahship was a matter of office and function, not of inherent nature. Jesus was anointed for a mission; He was raised to new glory. But it is never said that He was at any time any the less human or any more divine." (William M. Ramsay, The Christ of the Earliest Christians, p. 88).

His exaltation to the Father's right hand did, however, inaugurate His Messianic regency. Nowadays it is a popular view that Jesus is not now reigning, but will begin to do so at some point in the future. The substance of the session at the right hand as communicated in scripture is that His reign has already been inaugurated, though of course it will unfold with more power and glory in the future than is now apparent in its hidden state.


Holy, Holy, Holy

Logo Psalm 80

The 'Son of Man' is a Messianic title Jesus often used of Himself, from Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 80:17: "Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself."

  • Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    You who lead Joseph like a flock;
    You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth!
    Before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
    Stir up Your strength,
    And come and save us!
    Restore us, O God;
    Cause Your face to shine,
    And we shall be saved!
    O LORD God of hosts,
    How long will You be angry
    Against the prayer of Your people?
    You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    And given them tears to drink in great measure.
    You have made us a strife to our neighbors,
    And our enemies laugh among themselves.
    Restore us, O God of hosts;
    Cause Your face to shine,
    And we shall be saved!...
    Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts;
    Look down from heaven and see,
    And visit this vine
    And the vineyard which Your right hand has planted,
    And the branch that You made strong for Yourself.
    It is burned with fire, it is cut down;
    They perish at the rebuke of Your countenance.
    Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand,
    Upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself.
    Then we will not turn back from You;
    Revive us, and we will call upon Your name.
    Restore us, O LORD God of hosts;
    Cause Your face to shine,
    And we shall be saved!"
  • (Psalm 80).


If there is any 'broken link' between Psalm 110 and Stephen's vision, let Psalm 80 repair the missing piece. Though modern Bible critics have advanced every possible interpretation of the title 'son of man,' including as a vague circumlocution for "I": 'son of man' = 'a certain man" = 'somebody or other, like for instance myself,' -- it is in reality a Messianic title. The "man of Your right hand" is the Redeemer and Savior of Israel, the "son of man."

"Christ is called the 'man', though as yet he was not really man, because it was purposed and promised that he should; and he had agreed to become man, and had appeared often in an human form; and it was certain that he would be incarnate: and also the man of God's 'right hand', which is expressive of the power of God, because by him, who, in time, became man, even the Son of God, the world, and all things in it, were made; and by him all things are upheld in their which may be added, that this phrase is expressive of love and affection; so Benjamin had his name, which signifies the son of the right hand, from the great affection of his father; so Christ is the Son of God's love, his dear and well beloved Son; as appears by hiding nothing from him, by putting all things into his hands, and appointing him the Head and Saviour of his people, and the Judge of the world; and his love to him is a love of complacency and delight, is everlasting and unchangeable: moreover, he may be so called, because he was to be, and now is, exalted at the right hand of God, in human nature, as a Prince and Saviour, above angels, authorities, and powers, and above every name whatever: and the prayer is either that the hand of vindictive justice might not be upon the vine, or the church of God, but upon Christ their surety, who was able to bear it, and had engaged to do is added, 'upon the son of man, whom thou madest strong for thyself;' for the accomplishment of his purposes, promises, and covenant, for the bringing about the salvation of his own people, and for ends of his own glory: the same person is here meant as before; and his being called "the Son of Man", which is a very usual phrase for Christ in the New Testament, and which seems to be taken from hence, and from Da 7:13, shows that he could not be really from eternity, since he was to be the Son of Man, as he was, of Abraham, David, &c."
(John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, Psalm 80:17).

Daniel's Vision I the Son of Man
Common Sense Rabbi Akiba
The Other Beloved Son
Psalm 80 Psalm 8

LogoStephen's Sermon

Stephen's sermon, for which he suffered death at the hands of an effectual lynch mob, has always presented an interpretive challenge. His lengthy retelling of Israel's history caused great offense; why? And how is it to the purpose?

Hellenistic Judaism has always been willing to take an unbiased look at Jewish institutions, not necessarily regarding them as having fully achieved perfection:

"But it became usual to call the altar which was in the open air the altar of sacrifice, as being that which preserved and took care of the sacrifices; intimating, figuratively, the consuming power of these things, and not the lambs and different parts of the victims which were offered, and which were naturally calculated to be destroyed by fire, but the intention of him who offered them; for if the man who made the offerings was foolish and ignorant, the sacrifices were no sacrifices, the victims were not sacred or hallowed, the prayers were ill-omened, and liable to be answered by utter destruction, for even when they appear to be received, they produce not remission of sins but only a reminding of them.
"But if the man who offers the sacrifice be holy and just, then the sacrifice remains firm, even if the flesh of the victim be consumed, or rather, I might say, even if no victim be offered up at all; for what can be a real and true sacrifice but the piety of a soul which loves God? The gratitude of which is blessed with immortality, and without being recorded in writing is engraved on a pillar in the mind of God, being made equally everlasting with the sun, and moon, and the universal world." (Philo Judaeus, On the Life of Moses, Book Three, Chapter X).

Notice that Philo believes what is salvific in the temple sacrifices is simply the intention of the offerer. This view would later come into its own under Rabbinic Judaism. The temple stood in ruins; what to do? The Rabbis put their heads together and decided that the temple really doesn't matter; there is still prayer, there are still good deeds. If all that mattered in the temple institutions is the mind-set of the offerer, then what is the need for a temple?

This has not been the dominant Christian perspective, which sees animal sacrifice as a symbolic pointing to the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The mind-set of the offerer is not after all the point at issue; it is the blood which remits sin. It may be that Stephen was a Rabbi-before-the-Rabbis, as it seems that he, while the temple was still standing, was fixated on its inadequacies. Or perhaps 'outdated' is a better thought that 'inadequate;' once the reality came, the symbol could only become dim and fade away.

William Jennings Bryan Home