July 24, 2011

Stephen-Contention, Jealousy, Martyrdom

Last week we saw how Peter stood up to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish priestly council, even though he was only a fisherman and not a learned rabbi. Today we meet Stephen, a Greek Jew, who was brought before the council. His story also exposes contention and jealousy within the early church. First we learn of the complaints by the Hellenists, or Greek speaking Jews, against the Hebrew Jews. Then we see that jealousy against Stephen’s preaching by members of the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’. These were probably Jews enslaved by Romans and now freed. They have returned to Jerusalem and are zealous for their faith. The reaction of ‘the twelve’ and of the council is very different.

Chapter 6 introduces Stephen. In the early church “the disciples were increasing in number, [and] the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.” Even though the church is still young, there is dissension over perceived favoritism. The leadership acts swiftly and decisively. “The twelve called together the whole community…and said, “…select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. [so] They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” (Acts 6:1-6)

Rather than letting the discontent fester and cause greater discord, the twelve apostles confront the issue and provide a resolution. Seven Greek Jews (we can assume that from their names) are chosen to see that all the widows are cared for. The men are ‘ordained’ for their task by the laying on of hands, just as deacons and priests still are.

Stephen, esp., is filled with the Holy Spirit. He “did great wonders and signs among the people.” Not everyone was pleased with this, though.Those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” Using false witnesses they had Stephen arrested for blasphemy and “brought him before the council.” (Acts 6:7-15)

Perhaps because he was Greek and not Jewish, the ‘freedmen’ confront Stephen. When they cannot refute his facts and faith, they turn him over to the council. Like Peter, Stephen has to give an account of his beliefs in front of the leadership of Israel. The response of the council is entirely different from the twelve. They become enraged at Stephen’s witness.

In Chapter 7, Stephen’s rebuttal to his accusers is an overview of the history of the Jewish people from Abraham through Solomon. You can imagine the leaders of Israel nodding as he recites the story of their faith. At the end, his tone changes, though. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:1-53)

It is not surprising that “they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” Anyone intent on saving their life would have quit talking. “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:54-58)

Stephen’s testimony was not finished. He continued to emulate his Lord. Even as he was being stoned “he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:59-60)

The Sanhedrin felt threatened by the testimony of Stephen and other apostles. They thought that his death would be a lesson to the other followers of Christ. Certainly it had an effect on the ‘young man named Saul’. In Chapter 8, we’ll see that Saul persecuted the members of the church.

How do you and I respond to those who don’t agree with our way of worship or our precise belief system? Do we act like the apostles and seek a solution and reconciliation or like the council with rage and stoning? Ever since the beginning of the church, there have been divisions over dogma and doctrine. What will it take for us all to see that we are servants of the “One God and Father of all”? What can you and I do to foster healing of differences?

Next week we’ll hear the story of the eunuch’s encounter with Philip-in his own words.

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