Stephen is arrested on false charges and put on trial (verses 11-15). The false charges against Stephen concern his attitude toward the Law and the Temple. Luke is clear that these are false charges against Stephen. He is not against the Law or the Temple.
Dating as early as F.C. Baur in the early 19th century, it has been thought that there was an early schism among the Jerusalem community, with Stephen representing a sort of proto-Pauline movement away from the temple and Law. Witherington cites Scharlemann’s study on Stephen as saying that the charges may be false but “not in the sense of being contrary to the fact.” Stephen was in fact anti-Temple and Law, according to this view, even if the witnesses brought to the Sanhedrin were lying. But ultimately, we cannot know really what Stephen actually taught since he does not respond the charges! His speech is not a plea of innocence to the charges against him, but rather than he is speaking the truth to the Sanhedrin.
These charges are not unlike those brought before the Sanhedrin against Jesus. Ben Witherington observes that Luke is patterning the death of Stephen after the trial and execution of Jesus. He has ten common elements, two of which only appear in Luke and Acts, that he commits his spirit to God and prays for the forgiveness of his accusers.
This is an important observation since in the Gospels the Jewish people reject Jesus as the Messiah, in Acts they are rejecting the promised Holy Spirit, the foundation for the Messianic Kingdom. Both rejections are punctuated by an execution of an innocent man. (This in no way says anything about Stephen being exactly like Jesus!)
Perhaps Stephen used Jesus’ statement that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days, or even his prediction that the Temple would be destroyed in the near future. This could have been used against him in the same way Jesus was accused of threatening the Temple. But Stephen (and Jesus for the matter) is in the grand tradition of offering a critique of the Temple and the Priesthood, begun by the prophets of the Hebrew Bible and continued right through the Second Temple period. That a Jew would stand up and say the Temple was corrupt was not particularly revolutionary – but to say that the work of your teacher replaced the work of the Temple would have been radical.
Stephen represents a different strata of Second Temple period Judaism which has the potential to be more open to the gospel of Jesus as Messiah and the coming Kingdom of God. But just like the Judean Jewish leadership, the synagogue of the Hellenists resist the Holy Spirit as well. Stephen is therefore arrested like the Apostles have been before.
But in this case we will hear a lengthy condemnation on the nation for their resistance against the Holy Spirit, leading to his dramatic execution at the end of chapter seven and the equally dramatic introduction of Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of the church.
Here is a problem for the readers of Acts. Luke chose to place this story where he did, balancing historical, literary and theological motives. What is Luke’s point in placing this arrest, prophetic speech and lynching at this point in his narrative?