One of the chosen seven men, began preaching in the Temple and synagogues. There was opposition from the hearers and he was forced to appear before the Sanhedrin to face trumped up charges.
One of the chosen seven men, began preaching in the Temple and synagogues. There was opposition from the hearers and he was forced to appear before the Sanhedrin to face trumped up charges.
Welcome back as we enter into the second series of the book of Acts. I hope that many of you will have been with us during Series 1, which covered the story of the Early Church from its very beginning in Jerusalem with the Day of Pentecost, right the way up to the time, when there’s a sudden change and the Church will begin to spread out from Jerusalem, which is why Series 2 is entitled ‘ The Gospel in Judea and Samaria’. These are geographical areas near Jerusalem in Israel, and we’ll talk about them as we go through Series 2.
Introduction and Background
This series starts after one of the summary statements that Luke makes from time to time in the Gospels when he is summarising a series of events. We saw at the end of the last episode in Acts 6:7, the following statement:
‘7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’Acts 6:7, NIV
That’s a summary of the dramatic events in Jerusalem, where thousands and thousands of people have come to faith. We can’t estimate the exact number of church members and believers by this time, but it’s far beyond five thousand, which is the last number given in the earlier accounts in Series 1. We ended Series 1 with a moving and important story, in Series 1 Episode 10, where we found that there was an economic problem in the church. There was a problem of injustice concerning the distribution of food to widows who were poor. There were many poor people in that church for reasons that I explained in previous episodes. Seven men were appointed to organise food distribution. Of those seven men, one of them was named Stephen, and he becomes the focus of the next two episodes. Something incredibly dramatic happens in and through the life of Stephen. We’re going to read the first part of this story in our episode today, and then the second part will be in Episode 2.
Let’s start by reading what happens to Stephen and keep in mind, as we’re reading, that the last thing we heard about Stephen was that he was serving the Apostles by distributing food, caring for the most vulnerable members of the Jerusalem church, who happened to be widows. That’s what we know about Stephen up until this time. In this passage, we see Stephen in a different light. Something remarkable begins to happen, Acts 6: 8 - 15,
‘8Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. 11Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12So they stirred up the people and the elders and the Teachers of the Law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the Law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” 15All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.’Acts 6:8-15, NIV
Let’s think about Stephen for a moment. We don’t know anything about his background. He suddenly appears in the story in the last episode with the distribution of food. He has a Greek name, rather than a Jewish or Hebrew name, which suggests that he comes from the part of the Jewish community that is associated with living in the Roman Empire, the Greek speaking part of the Roman Empire, rather than living in Israel. If you saw the last episode, you’ll remember the explanation about the Hebraic Jews, the ones who are based in Israel and use the Aramaic language, and the Hellenistic Jews, the ones who generally lived outside the country and commonly used the Greek language. Stephen was probably one of those. That’s important for our story and it explains something that happens. Here, he emerges into prominence, quite suddenly. We find him working with his hands, distributing food, whose heart is caring for the poor and in this episode, he’s using his voice. He’s not looking inwards, he’s looking outwards; he’s preaching. So, here’s an interesting way of thinking about Christian ministry and Stephen in particular. He’s focused on the internal, the church community. He obviously cares a lot about the church community and is willing to serve them but also, he’s deeply committed to spreading the Good News. He finds his voice, and begins to preach.
Up to this time in the book of Acts, the preachers have been described as the Apostles. We now have a change. Frequently, Luke said ‘the Apostles preached and there were many signs’ or, ‘Peter preached’. Those are the descriptions he gives. Stephen, is not an Apostle; he’s not an elder of the church. He’s a servant of the Apostles, caring for the poor and distributing food. He is now becoming prominent in speaking publicly about Jesus. Acts 6: 5 describes him as, ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,’ We have a tremendous character reference. He’s very open to the Holy Spirit, but he’s also a man of faith. One characteristic of faith is the willingness to take risks and to step out in obedience into new things. That’s exactly what Stephen does on this occasion. He doesn’t think. ’Well, I’ll leave this to the Apostles, they’re the preachers’. No, he begins to preach himself.
He was preaching in the synagogues and also in the Temple. In previous episodes, we pointed out that the primary gathering place for this large church community, apart from in their homes, was in the Temple courts where there was lots of space. They often gathered in a section in the Temple courts known as Solomon’s Colonnade, which we saw in an earlier episode. We can imagine that Stephen started preaching in that context but he also began to preach in synagogues. The Temple is the central Jewish place of worship. There’s only one Temple, and it’s in Jerusalem, and it’s the focus of the Jewish religion. Synagogues, gathering places for the faith community, were everywhere, and there were some in the city of Jerusalem. He goes and he preaches in ‘The Synagogue of the Freedmen’, as we can see from verse 9. I wonder why he went there. This is an interesting synagogue. The Jews were divided into different social groups, regional groups, and this particular synagogue catered for people who had connections with other parts of the Roman Empire and other countries. Cyrene and Alexandria are in North Africa, Cilicia and Asia are in modern day Turkey. Jews who had connections with those places found this a good place to gather. Stephen was one of those types of people. That was his cultural background. It was natural for him to meet in that synagogue, and he obviously asked them for the opportunity to speak. When he spoke, he spoke about Jesus the Messiah. He started speaking in exactly the same way that the Apostles had been preaching all through the city for the previous months. This created some resistance within this synagogue.
It’s also described as ‘The Synagogue of the Freedmen’. This is a reference to slavery. In the Roman Empire many hundreds of thousands of people were designated as slaves, and they could be freed from slavery, hence the term ‘Freedmen’. Slavery in the Roman Empire came about because of war, captives of war; came about as a punishment for crimes; came about in all sorts of circumstances. The Romans used large numbers of people as slaves. We don’t know how many. Maybe ten percent, or twenty percent, of the Roman Empire population at this time might have been slaves. Some of them served in very harsh conditions rowing on galley boats across all the seas of that area. Some of them worked in the mines or in ancient factories in very harsh conditions. Many slaves operated as domestic servants, and that’s where we commonly see them in the New Testament. But this synagogue was partly consisting of people who’d experience Roman slavery, but had now been freed. This is the place where Stephen began to speak. It created controversy and ‘they couldn’t stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke’ about Jesus, verse 10.
In this synagogue it is likely that there would be another interesting character just about to appear in our story. He’ll appear in the next episode, and his name, his Jewish name, is Saul and his parallel Greek name is Paul, who becomes a central figure of the New Testament church. We’re going to find out more about him in the next episode but Paul came from the district of Cilicia, mentioned here. So, when he was worshipping in Jerusalem, he may have been in this congregation and hearing Stephen preaching the Gospel.
Resistance to the Preaching
They resisted strongly. How did they resist? They were angry, they were upset. We’ve seen this before - the Sanhedrin had resisted strongly. We’ve seen two occasions when the Jewish ruling council had taken action against the Apostles. First of all, against Peter and John, and then against all twelve Apostles on the second occasion. On the first occasion, they were warned and on the second occasion they were beaten or flogged, and warned not to continue their work. So, we know about this opposition. Here, in the synagogue, the same sort of thing begins to happen.
What is their approach to Stephen? They couldn’t refute or prove wrong, his statements about Jesus. In other words, they found it difficult to argue against him when he pointed out how the Old Testament prophesied about a Messiah who would suffer, that’s the particular thing, and also who would be raised again from the dead. He would have preached from passages like Isaiah 53, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, passages that are referred to in other parts of Acts. They couldn’t stand up against these arguments. They couldn’t give a better explanation of the Old Testament prophets than Stephen. There was a sense of power that he had as he was speaking, and conviction. So, what were their tactics? Their tactics were to persuade some people, in verse 11, to start rumours against Stephen that were untrue.
‘11They secretly persuaded some men to say,“ We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”’Acts 6:11, NIV
They started to spread rumours. In the 21st-century we call this fake news - the deliberate intention to spread a story about somebody or something that we know is untrue. This was the tactic of the members of this synagogue. They created false stories. Verse 13.
‘13They produced false witnesses who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the Law. 14For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”’Acts 6:13-14, NIV
They were basically saying, ‘Stephen is against the Temple, against the Law of Moses, and is threatening the fact that somehow this Temple is going to shortly be destroyed’.
Stephen Before the Sanhedrin
They took Stephen and forced him to come to a hearing of the Jewish ruling council. That’s an act of real force and coercion. They literally dragged him before the council. The council had already had two opportunities to question the Apostles, and now one of the Apostles’ associates is in front of them for another questioning. When the Sanhedrin was gathered, the members of this synagogue had already prepared some witnesses to say these things against Stephen, to condemn him before he’d even opened his mouth and made his defence. We have here another phase in this conflict and tension between the church and the Jewish ruling authorities in Jerusalem. We know that this conflict has been going on for a long time and it’s been getting worse. This is now the third round of direct conflict. On the first occasion, Peter and John were just warned, ‘Don’t say any more and we’ll let you go’. On the second occasion, the Twelve were beaten and warned. Now on the third occasion, the Sanhedrin is going to be forced to consider what to do next, because their previous tactics have failed. The situation is escalating; it’s growing in intensity and the tension in the room would be very great because the High Priest, who chaired this court of the Sanhedrin and all his colleagues, would be wondering, ‘How on earth are we going to stop this sect of people who are following Jesus and proclaiming that he is the Messiah? So far, we’ve completely failed. They have filled Jerusalem with his teaching; they’re performing miracles; they’re interfering with the Temple worship with their crowds in the Temple courts; and they’re preaching and performing miraculous signs in the Temple courts, like the healing of the lame man’, which we saw in Acts 3. ‘How are we going to stop them?’
Face of an Angel
As they were thinking these things, they were looking at Stephen and wondering what they’re going to do about him. They find, in the extraordinary words of verse 15, ‘they saw that his face was like that of an angel’. What does that expression mean? Is that just a poetic expression? Probably what it means is that, as they looked at him, they saw a certain sense of brightness or glory within him and around him - a sense of another presence with him, more than just Stephen himself, but something of the power of God being with him. It was known amongst the Jews that the appearance of angels would be an awesome appearance, and there would be brightness and light that you would see. This is what this expression captures, ‘his face was like that of an angel’.
Thinking about this expression a little, let’s reflect on it. When God’s presence is particularly strong, you often have, in the Bible, a physical manifestation of something that symbolises and indicates that God is there in power. We’ve already seen this on the Day of Pentecost, where we’ve seen a supernatural wind that had no physical origin, and tongues of fire, almost as if the people that God was blessing with the Holy Spirit, were filled with fire. Those are physical signs of God’s presence. Another one is just this sense of brightness and a very clear light; a sense that there’s the light of God in that situation, or in that person. This is an experience that is described in the Bible many times. What they saw in Stephen was similar to what, for example, the Israelites saw in Moses when he came down from the mountain, Mount Sinai/Mount Horeb, where he had encountered the living God. It says, in Exodus 34: 29:
‘When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.’Exodus 34:29, NIV
Notice that expression, ‘his face was radiant’. That’s a very similar expression to what we have here. As we noted when we studied the life of Jesus, Jesus himself in the moment of transfiguration, which we see, for example, in Matthew 17:2, when he was with Peter, James and John. It says,
‘He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.’Matthew 17:2, NIV
Again, his face filled with brightness. It’s quite clear that something similar is happening here to Stephen. Stephen is being empowered by the Holy Spirit in a unique way, filled with the Spirit and being filled with incredible courage as he is about to deliver an astonishing speech. It’s the longest recorded speech in the book of Acts, and it tells in detail of the Christian Gospel message in the context of the history of Israel. It answers all the questions of his questioners. We’re going to come to that speech in the next episode. It’s a monumental speech of immense significance that Luke records in detail. Here we see that God is filling him in preparation for delivering that speech.
I’m going to conclude this episode with some reflections for us. What can we learn from this story in our Christian discipleship? I want to suggest three things. First of all, Stephen’s character. He is a remarkable man. His career, his time as a leader, was very short, as we’ll find in the next episode but during that time he demonstrated four fundamental characteristics of Christian character and discipleship that make people fruitful. Do you want to be fruitful in your Christian life?
Think of these four things. First of all, servanthood. The Apostles said, ‘Stephen, will you serve the poorest and most vulnerable people in the church? Would you get your hands dirty? Will you just work with them and sort out the distribution of food? And he said, ‘Yes’. It wasn’t too boring a task or too humbling a task for him. He was willing to do that for as long or short, as was necessary. Secondly, he was faithful. He was faithful in that task with the other six men. They clearly carried out their job really well and looked after the vulnerable people. He was a servant. He was faithful. Also, he was available. When the opportunity, or calling, came, to do something different and to start preaching more publicly, and becoming more of a public figure, he didn’t say, ‘No, I’m not willing to do that’. He didn’t say. ‘No, I want to stay in the background’. He was willing; he was available to do what God calls him to do. That’s a fundamental question about our Christian life. Are we actually available to do something different, perhaps take greater responsibility than we’ve done in the past? Fourthly, he displayed courage. We’ll see more of this courage very dramatically in the next episode. He was willing to go into that synagogue and take a lot of criticism and a lot of opposition. He was willing to face the fact that people would be saying false things about him, fake news, so to speak. Stephen’s character is something for us to reflect about.
The second thing that I find interesting is an understanding of God’s calling. The defining nature of your discipleship, and my discipleship, is the question, “What has God called you to do?” That’s a question I would like to ask you. Stephen had two different callings, and he responded well to them. He found his ability to be influential and affected by following the things that God called him to do. That calling changes sometimes, in different seasons of our lives. It might be something very simple; you might be a mother at home looking after children; you might be doing a very ordinary job which you’ve done for twenty six years and you feel called to do that. That’s what matters. You don’t have to move on from those very important things but always be sensitive. What is God calling you to do in this season of your life?
My final point of reflection is to speak to those who are listening to this episode, who may not be Christian believers yet. You may be looking into the faith. An interesting point that we can learn here about looking into the Christian faith is, there were people spreading rumours about Stephen and then there was the voice of Stephen. There are people who say things about Christianity, and its origins and its claims, that you can find on the Internet, or you can find in your society wherever you are in the world. But I encourage you, as Stephen was encouraging the people here, go to the source, go to the Gospels, go to the life of Jesus itself. Look at the truths and the person for himself. Don’t listen to the rumours; go and find out for yourself. You’ll find out, as many people in Jerusalem did at that time, that Jesus is indeed the Messiah - the one who is able to forgive sins and who can give us a new life. Hope you’ll join us for the next episode where we look at the second part of this story and find out what happens, as Stephen begins to make this dramatic speech to the Sanhedrin.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What characteristics would you look for in a Christian?
- How is Stephen’s character described?
- God’s calling on your life can change. What is God calling you to do now?
- What advice would you give to people exploring Christianity?
- Look at the people involved in leadership in the Early Church. Locate their ethnic backgrounds. How did they happen to be in Jerusalem?