ACTS 6 and 7
Martyrdom is the greatest gift you can give God – although ‘daily martyrdom’ (see Luke 9:23) is a requirement of all disciples. It seems that, as far as the Lord is concerned, we can ‘die’ a little bit each day of our lives, or lose our whole life in a single hour, as Stephen did! He is known as the first Christian martyr, although John the Baptist was arguably the very first one to die for Jesus’ cause. This chapter sets the scene for Stephen’s martyrdom and shows how an ordinary guy, full of the Holy Spirit, can do amazing things for Christ’s Kingdom.
It all started with their local FoodBank! Within the church community there was apparently some discrimination against widows from Gentile backgrounds, compared with those widows of Jewish culture who were probably locals. The Apostles were probably tempted to ‘wade in’ and sort things out when they realised that it would take up all their time – time that should have been spent in prayer and in preaching the gospel to the truly poor (those who did not have any hope).
It is always tempting, as a leader, to think that you have to ‘model’ every single aspect of the Christian lifestyle – getting ‘stuck in’ with all the everyday jobs that the church is called to do. To a certain extent, that is a good and worthy motive. However, leaders are called to lead; these apostles knew what their specific calling was from the Holy Spirit and refused to yield to the spirit of the age. They were not being aloof, and they were certainly not devaluing the important task of seeing that resources were shared fairly; however, they stuck to the task that God had assigned them – doing what only they could do.
Seeing the opportunity to delegate, they agreed to recognise seven men who were elected by the body of disciples, and to give them complete responsibility for the important food distribution. From that point, the apostles resisted all temptation to ‘micromanage’ the Seven; they appointed them, trusted them, and prayed for them.
Also, notice the calibre of men required – Stephen being the best example. Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, full of God’s grace and power, he did great miracles among the people. You seemed to have to be moving powerfully in the supernatural to qualify you to administer the distribution of food to the poor! Far from being a devalued job, the role was reserved for believers of the highest calibre, hugely gifted and universally respected. It turned out to be a wise decision to appoint them after all! Furthermore, there was never a case of this kind of favouritism to be found within the church again; instead it was replaced by a spirit of mutual generosity and an urgency in meeting one another’s’ needs – as exemplified later by the Gentile church at Antioch which sent financial relief back the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem when they were known to be in hardship (see Acts 11:27-30).
The martyrdom of Stephen began with a seemingly inconsequential comment in Acts 6:7 – “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith”. Judaism was by then a rival religion – fiercely opposed to the followers of Jesus because they were heretical in several ways: (1) Worshiping a mere man (they thought) as God; (2) Having more than one God (they thought); and (3) Declaring that the Temple and the ceremonial Old Covenant laws were redundant after Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary. In addition, the staid old Judaism of the day was losing numbers to the rapidly expanding new Jerusalem church, led by unschooled northern tradesmen who could not stop doing miracles in the streets of the city. An offended and jealous enemy is often lethal!
The fanatical ‘Synagogue of the Freed Men’ – converts to Judaism from outside Israel, and therefore doubly zealous – first tried to provoke Stephen and, then when his supernatural wisdom won the day, they resorted to underhand and deceitful tactics, bringing false accusations against him in the highest religious court of the land. Saul of Tarsus was a prominent member of these fanatics. The presiding High Priest invited Stephen to defend himself.
Emboldened by the Holy Spirit, Stephen chose not to back down, nor to defend himself against the charges; instead he gave a lengthy discourse on Israel’s history. His speech seems to lack structure at first, and the reader needs to re-read it once he/she has reached the punchline of verses 51-53. The key point that Stephen makes is that Israel’s leaders and prophets of old were led by the Holy Spirit in their day and were similarly resented and rejected by many of the people of their time. Joseph was persecuted by his brothers, and Moses was rejected by his Israelite brothers in Egypt, and by the nation in the desert. Almost all the prophets were tortured or killed by God’s people.
Stephen therefore accused the Jewish Authorities of looking fondly backwards to those heroes of history, approving of their strong leadership then – despite the fact that those heroes whilst walking with the Spirit, suffered greatly from their own generation. Stephen then exposed the authorities’ hypocrisy in the way that they themselves opposed the movement of the Holy Spirit in their own generation!
This was not calculated to win him favour with the court, nor a sympathetic trial. Actually, that didn’t matter, since he signed his own death warrant by claiming to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in heaven. The Sanhedrin went into uproar, with its members yelling at the top of their voices to avoid listening to any further ‘blasphemy’, whilst dragging Stephen outside the city to stone him. A painful, but relatively quick death, this was the prescribed Old Covenant punishment for blasphemy; Stephen stood calmly in acceptance of this, knowing that he was declaring Jesus as Lord and Messiah with every stone that hit him. As he “fell asleep” – an accurate description of Christian death – he offered his spirit to his faithful Lord, along with a prayer that his accusers would be forgiven.
The young man, Saul, guarding the cloaks of the stone-throwers, looked on with a mixture of indignation and awe, little realising that this whispered prayer had just saved him from eternal damnation and would raise him up to be the greatest of all apostles and missionaries that the world has known. Re-born Paul would continue the work that Stephen had begun. Grace; all grace!