Acts: For the Cause of Christ #14
We left off in Acts halfway through chapter 6. In this section we saw how there was suspected partiality in the church around the serving of the widows between the Greek/Jewish members and the Hebrew/Jewish members. The complaint went before the Apostles. The Apostles wisely told people that their primary responsibility was to preaching the Word of God. They instructed the people to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom” to be leaders and to take over this ministry.
The members of the church agreed and 7 men were chosen: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. The Apostles approved the selection, prayed over them and laid hands on them to show they had authority in this ministry. We were left with a kind of progress report of the church in verse 7 with hearing that the Word continued to spread and the disciples in Jerusalem continued to grow and that a number of priests were converted. Now we look at how one of these men was such an influence that he was brought before the members of the Sanhedrin to defend the faith.
Stephen Accused – 6:8-15
Stephen demonstrates that though someone is involved in a certain ministry (the distribution of goods to members in need), that that is the only ministry that person cares about. Stephen knew that everyone’s ministry was spreading the gospel. Not only was he preaching and teaching, the Lord used him to do wonders and signs as to prove the God was apart of this new message Stephen and the others were presenting.
Now Stephen didn’t just contain his preaching to the Solomon’s Porch in the temple complex, he also went to area synagogues. Trouble came from at least one synagogue. The grammar in verse 9 is not clear as to the number of synagogues that are involved, suggestions have ranged from one to five. For our purposes today, we’ll assume only one synagogue is mentioned, Freedmen’s Synagogue or Synagogue of Freedmen. It has been suggested that this synagogue was opened by Jewish slaves, or descendant of Jewish slaves, that were captured by Pompey in 63 BC when he captured Judea for Rome, and were then freed sometime later. There are four nationalities mentioned here, Cyrenians and Alexandrians (these seem to be the majority of people in the synagogue), as well as people from Cilicia and Asia (or Asia Minor). The reference to Cilicia causes some to think that Saul of Tarsus went to this Synagogue, as Tarsus was the capital of Cilicia, but would a self-described “Hebrew of Hebrews” go to a Hellenist Synagogue?
The opposition to Stephen, and the gospel, seems to be that men from this synagogue tried to debate and argue with Stephen and couldn’t. Verse 10 tells us, [read 10]. Here is a verse to remember when you are discussing the gospel with someone, another reminder that the Holy Spirit will bring the things to say when we need it. So, Stephen’s ministry turned out to be just as controversial as Peter’s and the Twelve.
Because these men could not defeat Stephen’s wisdom (ultimately it was the Spirit they were debating), they plotted against him. They, like the scribes and chief priests with Jesus, get false witnesses to testify and spread a lie about what Stephen was saying. They raise a charge of blasphemy saying Stephen speaks against Moses and God. It is likely that a broad sense of blasphemy is in play here as Moses is listed first (and is likely in reference to the Mosaic Law). We see in verse 13 that it is further “explained” as the law and the temple. This charge stirred up the people, who had given their favor to the early church in the previous chapters, and the elders and the scribes. Stephen was brought be before the Sanhedrin, this is the third time a member of the early church has brought before the ruling council of Israel since Pentecost.
Before the Sanhedrin the false witnesses testify that Stephen speaks against the temple, and the law. The charge is a perversion of a statement Jesus, which was also used against Jesus at His trial (Mt 26:60-61), think they got the same false witness?
Verse 15 gives us a unique expression within the New Testament. It suggests that Stephen had some appearance about him like he was somehow reflecting a small part of the glory of God. It has been suggested that the Sanhedrin would have thought of Moses and how his face shown when he came off Mount Sinai, that it was almost like God was telling them that Stephen was not against Moses. I think no matter what, Luke is saying that Stephen was innocent of the charges brought against him. It is also likely that Paul would have told Luke about this later.
Could you be a Stephen? Are you willing to be a Stephen?
Stephen’s Speech – 7:1-53
Patriarchs – 1-19
The High Priest, Caiaphas, asked Stephen if these blasphemy charges were true. Stephen did not give a direct answer, instead he gives a defense of each charge against him by surveying Israel’s history. There are several disagreements over apparent discrepancies within Stephen’s speech. I am not going to tackle these arguments here, however one view is that Luke without error, recorded Stephen’s whole account, errors and all. I, however, disagree with that as Stephen being full of the Spirit is such an important part of the narrative, it would be unlikely that the Spirit would have allowed such errors in this speech.
To answer the charge of blasphemy against God he begins with the Abraham and the Patriarchs. He starts by referring the Lord as the God of glory, and recounts that God called Abraham from false gods and lifestyle of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia. This should have been a clear example that Stephen certainly was orthodox with his faith and respect of the God of Israel. He stresses the God’s will and purpose would be done. He shows that God would still complete His purpose despite the usually sinful actions of people. Even the patriarchs who sold Joseph into Egypt. However while in Egypt, part of God’s promises were coming true as the Hebrews flourished and multiplied until a new Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews.
Moses and Israel – 20-43
Stephen spends a large portion of time dealing with Moses and the law as this was a point he was accused of blaspheming. His testimony showed his belief in Moses’s ministry and the divine occurrences surrounding it and the giving of the law was as good as the Sanhedrin themselves.
However, Stephen reminded the Sanhedrin that children of Israel routinely resisted God’s dealings with them and His chosen leader. Stephen goes on with how the nation rejected Moses and worshipped idols. He tells the Sanhedrin that he is not the blasphemer as he accepted Moses’ prophecy of a coming Prophet (see verse 37).
Stephen then just moves ahead in the history to the time of exile. He reminds them again that the nation continued to sin and worship false gods and break the covenant again and again until the Lord disciplined them in exile.
God’s House – 44-50
In addressing the charge about the temple, Stephen reminds the council that the superstitious reverence for the building was contrary to Solomon for in 1 Kings 8:27 Solomons himself says, “But will God indeed live on earth? Even heaven, the highest heaven, cannot contain you, much less this temple I have built.”
Stephen reminds them that the Tabernacle was the only structure ordered by God to be set up for worship. Their ancestors carried into the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership, King David sought to build a permanent structure, but Solomon was the one to build the first temple, which as a far grander building the one that was in use in Stephen’s day. Stephen quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 reminding the Sanhedrin that God had no need for a physical building. Stephen again shows his high view of God as he calls Him the Most High, this is a reference back to a Hebrew name for God ‘El elyon’ which is usually translated as ‘God Most High’ in our english versions.
Still Resisting – 51-53
Stephen applied this historical truths to his audience. He had shown how the Israelite ancestors had routinely disobeyed God. Stephen told them that their ancestors had killed the prophets who foretold of the Messiah, and then when the Messiah came the Sanhedrin Stephen now stands before had killed the Messiah. He accused his listeners have have the same rebellious spirit as their forefathers, he even uses a term found in the Old Testament in Exodus 33:3, 5 and Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; he calls them stiffnecked people. This is the idea of stubborness, or unable to turn or bow one’s head. With the stern rebuke of stiffnecked, he calls them uncircumcised in heart and ears. He’s saying the spiritually they are no better than the unbelieving gentiles.
Are you stiffnecked? Are you resisting what God is asking you to do? Are you resisting accepting Jesus Christ as Savior?
Martyr and Dispersion – 7:54-8:4
Here the whole thing breaks down. It seems that Stephen’s accusation of Israel continuing to resist the Spirit, to resist God, causes such outrage that it appears as though they interrupt him. He is unable to continue as he does not talk about Jesus or the resurrection, which has been the case with each of the previous recorded speeches in Acts. God, at this point allowed Stephen a vision of heaven. Stephen was able to see God’s glory and throne and see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. Stephen does the obvious thing and announces what he see to his listeners.
This declaration by Stephen that he saw the Son of Man, the Messiah, standing next God in heaven was the final straw for the people in the council chambers, this for them seems to be actual blasphemy and they react. At this point any pretense of a legal procedure breaks down into a mob mentality. It is interesting to note that Stephen accused them of being uncircumcised in ears, and then they actually covered/stopped their ears at his declaration of his vision. It isn’t clear as to whether the council chambers were closed, or if there were spectators observing. Some think that the Sanhedrin themselves are the ones who stopped their ears and dragged Stephen outside the city, others just refer to ‘the crowd’. Either way, whatever the Sanhedrin had in mind to do breaks down into a lynch mob as they dragged Stephen outside the city gates; this is a clear reference from the Mosaic law for how to stone a lawbreaker (Lev 24, Num 15, Deut 17). What about the Romans? Weren’t all capital cases suppose to go to the Roman Authorities for execution, as in the case with Jesus? At this point, there was no consideration of consequences, at this point the ‘trial’ had dissolved to mob violence. Obviously there were some members of the Sanhedrin or members scribes, Pharisees, and others there as the witnesses (those who heard the ‘blasphemous statement’) laid their feet at the feet of Saul of Tarsus. As he did with Barnabas in chapter 4, Luke subtly introduces his readers to a new character, and the ‘hero’ of the second half of Acts, here by mentioning Saul.
While they stoned him, Stephen echoed the actions of Jesus first by calling out towards heaven and asking Jesus to receive his spirit. This is similar to Jesus on the cross when He cried out “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Lk 23:46)”. Stephen then on his knees, prayers for his attackers. Here is following Christ’s teaching and emulating Him. In Luke 6:27-28 Christ says, “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” And Luke 23:34 records, “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing’…”. With this forgiveness of his attackers, Stephen dies. He is remembered as the first Christian martyr.
Luke then notes Saul’s approval of the stoning of Stephen, this seems to be the spark and the leader needed for outright persecution of the new community by the Jewish Leadership. This is introducing a new phase for the spreading of the Gospel. The city of Jerusalem has been pretty well saturated at every level by these witnesses of Jesus. It was time spread out from Jerusalem, and this new persecution was a catalyst as we will see next week. But we this passage is the culmination of the increasing opposition and hostility towards the church. “We have moved from a warning (4:21) to a flogging (5:40) to martyrdom (7:58-60) to persecution (Bock, Darrell L., BECNT: Acts, © 2007, p 317-318)”. This new persecution against the church caused the church to scatter and spread throughout the region. The passage says “all except the apostles were scattered”, why the apostles stayed is unclear. They may have decided to take the risk of persecution and continue witnessings as leaders in Jerusalem, they may have been left alone since they were so well known, or there is thought that the Hellenistic Christians were the ones taking the brunt of the persecution; however, there isn’t clear evidence for any of these lines of thought.
Next we see that some devout, but unnamed and unspecified number of men took Stephen’s body and gave him a proper burial. They then mourned him or “lamented greatly”. This is the idea that we see in the Old Testament of sackcloth and ashes. Jewish tradition allowed for the burial of one who had been stoned, but not lamenting. “Their act is both defiant and a statement of their perception that Stephen was righteous (Bock, p319)”. This kind of mourning and lamenting could go on for about 30 days (Deut 34:8).
While this was happening Saul was leading the persecution against Christians in a severe way. The term that is used is the idea of damaging or spoiling something. We will see in Acts 9 that Saul is working with the approval of the Sanhedrin. Saul’s dragging people of to prison foreshadows what will happen later in Acts in other cities. The seriousness of his work is really shown by the house-to-house search he used.
Verse 4 here of chapter 8 is a transitional verse. It connects the immediate context with what will be discussed in the following section. We are shown good that is coming from the persecution and the scattering, as we see that those who were fleeing Jerusalem still preached the gospel. The persecution does the opposite of what it was intending to do. Instead of stopping the gospel, it assisted in the spreading of the gospel. “Persecution correctly handled by the church can do that (Bock, p320)”.
When’s the last time you shared your faith? When’s the last time you shared the gospel? Was it when you felt safe? Would you share if it was unsafe?
We’ve seen how God can use one person for the Cause of Christ. Could you be a Stephen? Are you willing to be a Stephen? We’ve quickly surveyed Israel’s history and seen how though there were those you followed God, much their history is an example of turning from God, and resisting God. Are you stiff-necked? Are you resisting what God is asking you to do? We have seen how proclaiming God’s truth can rather unpopular, and at times not safe. When’s the last time you shared your faith? When’s the last time you shared the gospel? Was it when you felt safe? Would you share if it was unsafe? What are you doing for the cause of Christ?