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Stephen Apprehended

INTRODUCTION: Stephen was selected along with six other men to carry out the daily task of ministering to widows, with specific attention to assure that the Hellenist widows were not overlooked in the Jerusalem church. He is most remembered though for becoming the first recorded church martyr, which seems unrelated to his appointed duties. But there may be a very reasonable expectation that such a confrontation would develop for a man of Stephen's qualities.

NOTE: All Bible text is taken from the Revised Webster version of the Bible.

A - Acts 6

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, performed great wonders and miracles among the people.

COMMENTS: This brief statement clearly affirms in similar wording that Stephen possessed the pre-qualifiers for his position of service (i.e. to be ... of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom - Acts 6:3), and he surpassed the basic duty of serving widows, as he performed wonders and miracles among the people. The Holy Spirit has not revealed through the Bible, the full nature of Stephen's acts, but they apparently were noteworthy enough to lead to confrontational debate with opposing Jews, as we learn in verse nine. Even though God brought Messiah into the world by Jewish lineage, his coming created separation among the Jews as well as among all other people groups.

Jesus had said the separation would happen (verse 34-39 below), and it became very evident as people openly expressed belief in him. "32 Whoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father who is in heaven. 34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36 And a man's foes [shall be] they of his own household. 37 He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. 39 He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." (Matthew 10:32-39 RWebster). Stephen certainly exemplified the first, and the last two verses above, as his complete story in Acts has documented for us. Strong conflict is a prominent theme in the New Testament: first between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders, and then as both Jewish and pagan religious leaders opposed the apostles and other disciples because of things done in the name of Jesus. And that conflict continues down to our present time for true disciples of Christ. Jesus had been crucified, Peter and other apostles had been beaten, and now Stephen will come under attack as the narrative continues.

B - Acts 6

9 Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called [the synagogue] of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.

COMMENTS: There are quite a few references in the New Testament of the existence of synagogues throughout cities and villages in Israel, and in other nations wherever the Jews had been dispersed. It is unclear from the wording of the above verse If the reference is to men from multiple synagogues; and the verse does not tell us where the dispute took place, but it seems to involve a mixture of Jews. Jesus taught in many synagogues, and even performed miracles of healing in some of them. "And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people." (Matthew 9:35 RWebster).

Jesus warned his disciples of the mistreatment they would face in synagogues, and from Jewish and Gentile rulers. "17 But beware of men: for they will deliver you to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; 18 And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles." (Matthew 10:17-18 RWebster).

Jesus saw into men's hearts and could accurately describe the motivations of even their religious practices. "5 But all their works they do to be seen by men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, 6 And love the uppermost places at feasts, and the best seats in the synagogues," (Matthew 23:5-6 RWebster). Jesus not only told his disciples what to expect, but he spoke very bluntly to the self-righteous Jews, telling them how God viewed them, and what they would do to his disciples. "32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33 [Ye] serpents, [ye] generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? 34 Therefore, behold, I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and [some] of them ye shall kill and crucify; and [some] of them ye shall scourge in your synagogues, and persecute [them] from city to city:" (Matthew 23:32-34 RWebster).

Jesus and his disciples took the good news of salvation to the Jew first, including proselyte Greeks, before taking it to all Gentiles, even though that message was usually met with opposition from the Jews. "And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, and said to the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day." (Luke 13:14 RWebster). Some among the Jewish leadership did believe, but it was difficult for them to take a firm stand that would separate them from the mainstream society of the Jews. "Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess [him], lest they should be put out of the synagogue:" (John 12:42 RWebster). Not many Christians in the western world today can fully appreciate the sacrifices involved with accepting Christ at that time: but Jesus had told his disciples just how high the cost would be for some of them, and at the same time their opponents would be convinced they were doing God's will. "They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." (John 16:2 RWebster).

So, it is possible that Stephen was still attending synagogue at this early time in the church, or it may be that some of these men who now so strongly oppose him had formerly been in synagogue with him. Before moving on in Stephen's story, I will list two verses that indicate that even some years after Stephen's death, as Paul traveled, he went first into synagogues. Both Jews and Greeks were present, and some from each group believed. "And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed." (Acts 14:1 RWebster). "And he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks." (Acts 18:4 RWebster).

C - Acts 6

10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke.

COMMENTS: We should not overlook the textual replay of the two qualities mentioned here, because they were essentials set forth by the apostles for the seven men to be selected for duties that we might otherwise too lightly consider, thinking service to widows to be mundane functions not requiring spiritual qualifications. As Stephen's situation demonstrates, being a recognized member of the body of Christ may bring any of us into strong conflict with opponents of the cross if we defend our faith during discussions. Stephen made irrefutable statements that even multiple opponents could not resist because that which he spoke was from wisdom and the spirit. The Greek word used here for spirit is "pneuma", and it is translated variously in the KJV New Testament context: AV-Spirit 111, (Holy) Ghost 89, Spirit (of God) 13, Spirit (of the Lord) 5, (My) Spirit 3, Spirit (of truth) 3, Spirit (of Christ) 2, human (spirit) 49, (evil) spirit 47, spirit (general) 26, spirit 8, (Jesus' own) spirit 6, (Jesus' own) ghost 2, misc 21; 385.

When the qualifications for the seven were set forth in Acts 6:3, they were to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and there the word "hagios" preceded the word "pneuma" in the Greek. Stephen was not alone in this confrontation because he was filled with the Holy Spirit!

D - Acts 6

11 Then they secretly induced men, who said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and [against] God.

COMMENTS: Blasphemy was a very serious charge against a Jew, and in the Levitical law, death of the blasphemer at the hands of the congregation was required. "And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, [and] all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemeth the name [of the LORD], shall be put to death." (Leviticus 24:16 RWebster). But including blasphemy against Moses in this charge was a nebulous way of allowing a blurring between those things that Moses had written as revelation from God, and the expanded traditions of the Jews that were attributed to Moses. If the charges were legitimate, the Jews would not have needed to resort to secretly inducing men to allege such charges. What a heinous strategy to be used by religious leaders who were supposedly trying to combat misconduct by Stephen.

The tactic of setting up false witnesses was not new in Israel, and it is not lost in today's world either. King Ahab's wife used this technique in the Northern kingdom of Israel centuries earlier. "9 And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people: 10 And set two men, worthless men, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And [then] carry him out, and stone him, that he may die. 11 And the men of his city, [even] the elders and the nobles who were the inhabitants in his city, did as Jezebel had sent to them, [and] as it [was] written in the letters which she had sent to them. 12 They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. 13 And there came in two men, worthless men, and sat before him: and the worthless men witnessed against him, [even] against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, Naboth blasphemed God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died." (1 Kings 21:9-13 RWebster).

All of the participants in the perjury against Stephen violated one of the commandments written on the stone tablets by the very finger of God; and they gave that false witness so they could claim to have lawful justification for the murder they would commit. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour." (Exodus 20:16 RWebster). Those who gave false testimony against Stephen became worthless men just as the men described in 1 Kings 21:13 were worthless. The false witnesses and those who would judge in this controversy surely were a stench to the Lord, as they perverted the law recorded by Moses. "15 One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established. 16 If a false witness shall rise up against any man to testify against him [that which is] wrong; 17 Then both the men, between whom the controversy [is], shall stand before the LORD, before the priests and the judges, who shall be in those days; 18 And the judges shall make diligent inquisition: and, behold, [if] the witness [is] a false witness, [and] hath testified falsely against his brother; 19 Then shall ye do to him, as he had thought to do to his brother: so shalt thou remove the evil from among you. 20 And those who remain shall hear, and fear, and shall henceforth commit no more any such evil among you. 21 And thy eye shall not pity; [but] life [shall go] for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." (Deuteronomy 19:15-21 RWebster).

E - Acts 6

12 And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon [him], and caught him, and brought [him] to the council, 13 And set up false witnesses, who said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: 14 For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered to us.

COMMENTS: A common companion to false accusation is to ratchet up the emotional level within a crowd so they begin to act like a mob rather than an orderly assembly. And a second time we are told by the text that false witnesses were employed to assure the conclusion Stephen's opponents wanted from their inquiry. We know from the text that the witnesses against Stephen were false, and even if the term translated as "custom" was a factor in the legitimacy of the charges, Stephen probably had not violated any customs any more than any violation of the written law of God. From Paul's testimony near the end of his ministry, his Christianity had not caused him to violate Jewish customs. "And it came to pass, that after three days Paul called together the chief of the Jews: and when they were assembled, he said to them, Men, brethren, though I have committed nothing against the people, or customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans." (Acts 28:17 RWebster).

F - Acts 6

15 And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

COMMENTS: What an incredible contrast Stephen's countenance presents in this highly agitated atmosphere! He is not filled with anger or fear, either of which is usually easily detected by the appearance of the face. Those who were staring at him were probably all quite angry. His facial expression was so markedly different from the expected, that all eyes were fixed, fastened, intently looking upon him. This probably brought about a dramatic pause in the action, and this verse will be where I close this portion of the study on Stephen. There could have been many Old Testament scriptures that came to mind for Stephen to calm him at this time, and even sensing the very presence of the Holy Spirit within would have been a direct source of comfort. Here is one of those comforting verses from the Psalms. "He maketh the storm a calm, so that its waves are still." (Psalms 107:29 RWebster). And for the New Testament Christian, we have another passage that makes that verse alive with direct action by the Lord. "And they came to him, and awoke him, saying, Master, master, we perish. Then he arose, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water: and they ceased, and there was a calm." (Luke 8:24 RWebster). Stephen was in the kind of developing situation that makes this next verse very applicable. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." (Psalms 23:4 RWebster).

Man has a definite limit to the harm he can inflict, but the Lord holds eternity for us.
"In God have I put my trust: I will not be afraid what man can do to me." (Psalms 56:11 RWebster). The prophet Isaiah also knew that the Lord is the only source of true comfort and safety.
"Behold, God [is] my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH [is] my strength and [my] song; he also is become my salvation." (Isaiah 12:2 RWebster).
"Hearken to me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart [is] my law; fear ye not the reproach of men, neither be ye afraid of their revilings." (Isaiah 51:7 RWebster).

--- Reflections in prayer ---

Lord, as I studied this passage about Stephen, my wonderment increased with the way you blessed him with such a firm faith, and amazing power through your Spirit. Stephen was not one of the apostles chosen directly by you, but the record makes it quite evident that you chose him to be your vessel. He was a willing servant for the widows that you care so much about, and he did not shrink from confrontation when his faith was challenged in public.

May I be willing to serve in whatever capacity in the church you have suited to me; and may I continually seek more of your Spirit through your word, so my public witness will be strong. Stephen is an early example of how someone below the highest levels of leadership in the church can readily come under attack. Thank you Lord that Stephen's story gives me confidence that through your Spirit, I too can be used to defend the truth of the gospel. Because you are my strength, my song, and my salvation; I need not be afraid of the reproach or revilings of mere men. Amen.

Published 14 November 2006

Stephen's Defense
Stephen Martyred