“full of holy spirit.” This refers to the holy spirit that is the gift of God. [For more information on the uses of “holy spirit”, see Appendix 6: “Usages of ‘Spirit’”.]
“Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” In his last minutes alive, Stephen saw God sitting on his throne with Jesus Christ standing beside Him. This verse and the many others like it are a problem for Christians who have been taught that no one has ever seen God. The key to understanding what Stephen saw is realizing that God does come into concretion in a human form that we can see and understand. He does this so that He can better relate to, and fellowship with, His creation. God created humankind so He could intimately fellowship with us, so it is reasonable and scriptural that He occasionally becomes visible and takes on human form to be intimate with His creation. There are Old Testament verses in which Yahweh appears in the form of a man, and those appearances continue in the New Testament. In fact, Scripture records a number of people to whom God appeared: Adam and Eve (they heard His footsteps, Gen. 3:8), Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 15:1; 17:1; 18:1), Jacob (Gen. 28:13), Moses and the elders of Israel (Exod. 24:9-11), Samuel (1 Sam. 3:10), Solomon (two times: 1 Kings 3:5; 9:2; 11:9), Micaiah (1 Kings 22:19-22), Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-5), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:26-28), Amos (Amos 7:7), Daniel (Dan. 7:9-14), Stephen (Acts 7:56) and the Apostle John (Rev. 5:1-8). In contrast to many great men and women of God who saw God in a visible form, Jesus upbraided the unbelieving Jews by saying: “You have never heard his voice at any time, nor seen his form” (John 5:37).
Much of the confusion about the subject of God appearing as a man comes from John 1:18, which says, “no one has seen God at any time.” It is helpful to read the context to understand the verse. John 1:17-18 say: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, the only begotten Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” In Don’t Blame God!, the language of that phrase is examined and explained:
Please note that truth, in its fullness, came not with Moses, but with Jesus Christ. It was he who for the first time in history made God truly understandable. It is not that the Old Testament believers knew nothing of God, but rather that their knowledge and understanding of Him were quite limited (“veiled”). Since truth came by Jesus Christ [“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus,”], we believe that the first part of John 1:18—“no man hath seen God at any time”—means that no man had “known” God [as He truly is] at any previous time. It is Jesus Christ who reveals, or makes known, God to man.
In many languages, “to see” is a common idiom for “to know.” In the Hebrew language, one of the definitions for “see” (Hebrew = ra’ ah) is “see, so as to learn, to know.” Similarly, the Greek word translated “see” in verse 18 (horaō) can be “to see with the eyes” or “to see with the mind, to perceive, know.” Even in English, one of the definitions for “see” is “to know or understand.” For example, when two people are discussing something, one might say to the other, “I see what you mean.”
The usage of “see” as it pertains to knowing is found in many places in the New Testament. Jesus said to Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Here again the word “see” is used to indicate knowing. Anyone who knew Christ (not just those who “saw” him) would know the Father. In fact, Christ had made that plain two verses earlier when he said to Philip, “If you really knew me you would know my Father as well” (John 14:7). (Don’t Blame God! Spirit & Truth Fellowship, pp. 59,60).
Further evidence that “see” means “know” in John 1:18 is that the phrase “no man has seen God” is contrasted with the phrase “has made Him known.” So from the context and vocabulary in John 1:18, we can see that it is not talking about “seeing” God with one’s eyes; it is saying that the truth about God came by Jesus Christ. Before Jesus Christ came, no one really knew God as He truly is, a loving heavenly Father. We agree with the text note on John 1:18 in the NIV Study Bible (1984 edition), which says, “Since no human being can see God as He really is, those who saw God saw Him in a form He took on Himself temporarily for the occasion.”
The Bible also calls God “the invisible God.” This is true, because God’s natural state is invisible to us. However, that does not prevent Him from occasionally becoming visible. Angels and demons are also naturally invisible, but they become visible at certain times. If angels and demons can become visible, then God certainly can too.
It is often stated that the people could not have really seen God because a person will die if he sees God. This idea comes mainly from the conversation Moses had with God. Moses asked to see the glory of God, and God responded, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exod. 33:20). It is clear from the context that the “face” of God was the “glory” of God, because that is what Moses asked to see. We agree that human beings are not equipped to comprehend God in all His fullness, and exposure to everything that God is would be lethal. However, we know that God created us humans so that He could fellowship with us, and we assert that the human-like form that He sometimes assumes so we can relate to Him is not all of God’s fullness.
When the Bible says that people saw God, they saw “God.” They were not seeing Jesus Christ in some other form (although some Trinitarians teach that). There are records that clearly show both God and Jesus at the same time; one such record is in the Old Testament. In Daniel 7:9-14, “the Ancient of Days” is God and “the Son of Man” is Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, here in Acts 7, Stephen saw Jesus Christ standing on the right hand of God (God would almost certainly have been sitting on His throne, as He is usually portrayed in Scripture). Also, Revelation 4-5 shows God sitting on a throne surrounded by elders and other spiritual creatures, and He is holding a scroll in His right hand. Then “a Lamb,” which the context shows is Jesus Christ, approaches God and takes the scroll from Him. Records like this show us that God can and does occasionally take on the form of a human being, and He does that so we can better identify with Him.
Once we understand that God can and does take on a human form so that we can relate to Him, we are able to understand the passages that show God in the form of a man. We can also better understand what “heaven”—the place where God and angels live and demons go to accuse us (Rev. 12:10)—may look like. We know that angels come into concretion like humans, and the Bible gives us a picture of “heaven” that contains a Tent of Meeting (“Tabernacle”), and also a throne on which God sits.
Our first glimpse of the heavenly throne is in Exodus 24:10, when the elders of Israel climbed part way up Mt. Sinai, “and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” Here we see God in human form and He has feet and a “hand” (Exod. 24:11). The pavement of heaven is blue in color. We again see blue in Ezekiel 1:26, where it is the color of the throne of God. Also in Ezekiel, in the radiance around God, who is sitting on His throne, we see colors like those of a rainbow.
The blue pavement, with the great throne on it, must have looked like the “floor” of heaven to anyone who saw it in a vision. Jacob was one such person, who saw a great “staircase” going into heaven (not a “ladder” like a fireman’s ladder, even though some English Bibles say “ladder”), with angels walking up and down it, some going down to earth and some going back up to heaven (Gen. 28:12). At the top of the staircase stood Yahweh, the God of Israel, who spoke to Jacob. God would have been standing on some kind of floor at the top of the staircase, and although the Bible does not give the color in Genesis, it would make sense that, if it appeared in Jacob’s dream vision, it was blue.
In Revelation 4 we again see God on the throne, and again we see the colors of a rainbow around Him (Rev. 4:3). In fact, Revelation 5:13 refers to God as “him who sits on the throne” letting us know that it was a common understanding that God would take on human-like form and sit on His throne. Revelation also clearly shows us that there is a temple in heaven (Rev. 11:19; 14:15, 17; 15:5-8; 16:1 and 16:17), and Hebrews 8:1-5 indicates that the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle) and Temple on earth were made after the pattern of the Temple that already existed in heaven.
Having seen that God appears in human form, and also that the “picture” of heaven the Bible paints for us both in Old and New Testament is consistent, we are in a position to understand more about what likely happened in Acts 7:55-56. Stephen was being stoned by the religious Jews, and God gave him a revelation vision of the situation in heaven. Stephen saw God, surrounded by glory, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand, ready to give advice and carry out orders the same as any oriental vizier would do. From that short vision, we get the idea that God, the Creator and One True God, was sitting on his throne, and Jesus Christ, to whom He had given “all authority,” was standing at His right hand. The text does not say, but we can bet the “floor” looked blue, and the throne was surrounded by the colors of the rainbow, as we saw in Exodus, Ezekiel, and Revelation.
There is much information wrapped up in Stephen’s vision. From a fleshly perspective, it certainly looked like the Jews had the upper hand in the Stephen situation, but God shows that although sin and death are powerful now, God is the Power, and will have the last word. By his very presence in the vision, Jesus shows that the Devil’s “best punch,” which is death, has been overcome—he is alive, not dead. The vision was certainly an inspiration to Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church, and it should be an inspiration to us as well.
Also part of the vision was God’s love for His enemies, and His efforts to bring them to Himself. Although many in the audience seemed hardened beyond repentance, there was at least one man whose heart was stirred. No one in the audience could doubt that the vision was real to Stephen, and therefore possibly a genuine reality, and if that were the case, then Jesus was not a dead imposter but the living Messiah. So it was that sometime later, when Saul met Jesus face to face, he said, “Who are you, Lord?”
Another message of hope we should get from this record is that God will not always remain as distant as He now sometimes seems. The Bible tells of a time when “the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). The future will not be like today, when God is mostly invisible to us but rarely, oh so rarely, appears in a form we can relate to. In the future, God will dwell openly with us.