In the book of Acts, Luke tells the story of early church hero Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was one of seven leaders chosen to serve as deacons in Acts 6:1–7. Not long after that, Stephen was arrested and charged with blasphemy against Moses and God. As he is about to give his testimonial speech before the Jewish high court, Stephen stands, not trembling in fear or outrage but in calm confidence, glowing with divine inspiration. Luke describes the remarkable scene: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
When Stephen was appointed to serve as deacon, Luke described him as a man “of good repute, full of the Spirit of Wisdom” (Acts 6:3) and “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). When he related the events leading to Stephen’s martyrdom, Luke began, “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). The consistent portrait of Stephen’s character is that he was an extraordinary disciple—the first New Testament believer apart from the apostles to perform miracles. He was blazing a trail for God’s glory and ran immediately into opposition from Hellenistic Jews. But his opponents could not “stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke” (Acts 6:10, NLT). In frustration, Stephen’s critics cooked up a plan to have him arrested on the false charge of blasphemy.
When Luke depicted Stephen as having the face of an angel, he was setting the stage for Stephen’s martyrdom. The terminology evokes awe. All those who looked upon Stephen were struck with awe and wonder at his appearance. There was something about Stephen’s countenance that prompted comparisons to an angel who stands in God’s presence and reflects His glory. Moments before Stephen was stoned to death, as the Jewish leaders were grinding their teeth and shaking their fists in rage, Luke observed, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
Having an angel-like countenance was an expression frequently found in Judaism. It was used to illustrate a brightened, enlightened, spell-binding, or awe-inspiring appearance. After Moses spent time with the Lord in Exodus 34:29–35, his face shone with such a radiant glow that the people were afraid to come near him. Whenever he returned to the people from being in God’s presence, Moses covered his face with a veil.
The angel of the Lord that appeared to Samson’s mother had such an imposing presence about him that she later told her husband, “His appearance was like the appearance of the angel of God, very awesome” (Judges 13:6, ESV).
According to Ecclesiastes 8:1, “Wisdom lights up a person’s face” (NLT). Describing the transfiguration of Jesus, Luke writes, “And as he [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29, NLT).
When Stephen stood before his accusers, glowing with the face of an angel, he was radiating God’s wisdom and heaven’s glory. Without speaking a word, Stephen’s countenance gave witness that he was the Lord’s faithful servant. Indeed, those Sanhedrin members ought to have remembered Moses’ shining face. It was as if God was saying, “This man is no blasphemer! He is like Moses, My loyal servant!” The implication of Stephen’s having the face of an angel is that he, like Moses and Jesus, was a witness to and a reflection of the glory of God’s presence.