5. Stephen's Ministry and Martyrdom (Acts 6-7)

Audio (47:42)

Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, detail of 'St. Stephen' (1490-94), Tempera on wood, 191 x 56 cm
Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop, detail of 'St. Stephen' (1490-94), Tempera on wood, 191 x 56cm, Szépmûvészeti Muzeum, Budapest.

We often picture the primitive church as perfect. This lesson helps us understand some of its tensions and how it handled them. In this lesson we also see the emergence of a Church that isn't just made of Palestinian Jews, but now of Greek-speaking Jews whose origins are from throughout the Mediterranean. And we see Stephen, known to much of the church as Saint Stephen, who is a leading figure in the Greek-speaking wing of the new Christian Church in Jerusalem. With St. Stephen, we're also introduced to the martyrdom of the church's leaders as part of the enemy's attempt to snuff out the church.

We'll be considering two chapters in Acts -- the first which describes the church's response to multiculturalism, and the second which is a narrative of Old Testament history told by Stephen at his trial.

Up until now the Book of Acts has focused primarily on the ministry of the apostles. Now we see an increased spotlight on the ministry of particular servants that God used in the early days of the Church.

  1. Stephen (Acts 6-7)
  2. Philip (Acts 8)
  3. Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-31)
  4. Peter (Acts 9:32-11:18)

First, however, we examine the life and ministry of Stephen.

5.1 Growth Pains in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-7)

Two verses indicate a period of rapid growth in the Jerusalem church at this time.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing...." (Acts 6:1a)

"So 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)

Verse 1a reminds us that growth is in cycles. At this point the number of disciples was increasing, but when persecution begins in earnest under Saul, many flee the city and the number of disciples decreases (Acts 8:1). We need to be faithful in times of growth, times of plateau, and times of diminished members. The Holy Spirit is present even in seasons of little harvest.

It is significant that a "large number of priests" are converted during this time. They were of the tribe of Levi, serving rotations of two weeks in temple service each year. Estimates are of as many as 18,000 priests and Levites at this time.267 Many live in and around Jerusalem so they are close by when their rotation comes. Others live farther away, like John the Baptist's father Zechariah, in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). While the high priests were chosen by kings and governors from corrupt, elite, ruling class families, the priests are by and large faithful men, some Pharisees, some Sadducees, who love the Lord.

Now the Gospel has broken into this group of faithful people who see Jesus as the Messiah and the Sacrifice for our sins on the cross. Luke records that they "became obedient to the faith,"268 that is, they began to believe and follow Jesus as Lord. This can be seen as a tremendous Holy Spirit revival in the lives of the most religious in the land. Praise God!

Complaints Mar Church Unity (Acts 6:1)

But with growth come problems.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food." (Acts 6:1)

Luke notes two groups in the Jerusalem church -- Hebrew speakers (Palestinian Jews) and Greek-speaking Jews, who had come to Jerusalem to live from communities of the Jewish Diaspora around the Mediterranean. While the Hebrew speakers probably communicate in Aramaic, they can understand the Hebrew Bible. The Greek-speaking Jews, however, struggle in Aramaic and Hebrew and have formed their own synagogues within Jerusalem, such as the Synagogue of the Freedmen mentioned in Acts 6:9.

There is tension between these two groups that are now part of the Christian Church. The Greek-speaking faction complains269 that their widows aren't getting their fair share270 in the daily ministry of distribution of food for the needy of the fellowship.271 This has become a source of division in an otherwise united congregation and urgently needs to be addressed.

Don't miss the obvious fact that the Jerusalem church has taken on itself -- however imperfectly -- caring for the basic needs of the poorest among them. Judaism encouraged alms for the poor who begged. The church takes on a daily program of distribution, the forerunner of many programs of charity undertaken by the Church throughout the ages. Especially in Greek cities, this kind of Christian compassion for the poor is quite impressive, since the Greeks and Romans do not have the same kind of religious concern for the poor that is found in the Jewish Torah.

Also note that up to now, the apostles themselves seem to be responsible for this charitable program -- and aren't doing a great job at it. They are criticized for their failures to provide equity between cultural groups, and are taking too much time with this ministry that prevents them from pursuing their primary calling -- prayer and ministry of the Word.

Selecting the Seven (Acts 6:2-4)

"And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, 'It is not right that we should give up272 preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.'" (Acts 6:2-4)

Notice that the words found in "serve tables" (verse 2) and "ministry of the word" (verse 4) are both from the same root diakoneō (from which we get our word "deacon), "to serve." The NRSV catches the flavor in verse 4:

"We ... will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word."

The apostles are called to serve the Word; the Seven are called to serve tables. All this is part of serving the Lord and important to him.

The apostles are to focus on their own ministry and not get distracted. "Devote ourselves" (ESV, NRSV), "give our attention" (NIV), "give ourselves continually" (KJV) is proskartereō, "to persist in something," here, "busy oneself with, be busily engaged in, be devoted to."273 How seriously do you take your ministry? What is distracting you from your core calling?

Part of the apostles' ministry is teaching the Word. That's easy to understand. But part of this calling is prayer.274 Certainly, they are emulating their Master in getting up long before daylight to seek the Father. They are praying for the people and their needs. Perhaps this also means praying for the sick in the temple (Acts 4:12). But what else? I wish I knew what all this ministry of prayer entails for them.

At any rate, the apostles wisely solve the problem the complainers have identified. They call an assembly of the whole church, explain the problem, offer a solution and set parameters. The congregation is to select275 and put forward qualified people to meet this task. The apostles will then use their authority to officially appoint276 them to the task, to "ordain" them, so to speak.

"This proposal pleased the whole group" (Acts 6:5)

It also serves to stop the murmuring by allowing the aggrieved to join in the selection process and preserve the apostles' authority to set them in office.

"They presented277 these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands278 on them." (Acts 6:6).

Laying on of hands has a long history in Judaism of conferring or imparting the Spirit, a blessing, or a ministry.279 The result of appointing the Seven is that "the word of God spread" (Acts 6:7a). The cause of the complaints is dealt with before it can become a distraction and detriment to growth.

Q1. (Acts 6:1-2) What is the root problem in the Jerusalem church that shows up in food distribution? How could such a root problem slow growth and erode spiritual life? How do the apostles deal with it? Is there a root problem in your congregation that leaders need to deal with that threatens the health of the church? Why do leaders sometimes avoid dealing with church problems?

Qualifications of the Seven (Acts 6:3)

The Seven are often casually referred to as "deacons," but they aren't given that title here. Later, the early church choses two classes of workers for their congregations: elders (or overseers) and deacons or servants (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9; Philippians 1:1). Let's look briefly at the qualifications the apostles prescribe for the Seven.

1. Males. The Greek word for "men" (anēr) is specific: "male." While women could do these tasks just as well as men -- and certainly women helped in this food pantry ministry -- in this culture men are selected to lead. Later, we see the possibility of women serving as deaconesses (Romans 16:1; perhaps 1 Timothy 3:11 if you take gynē as "woman" rather than "wife"280). Historically, there were deaconesses in many regions of the Church through the eighth century AD.

2. Reputable. The Seven must have a good reputation281 in the community, be well-spoken of. We see the same kinds of qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

3. Full of the Holy Spirit. I expect that "full282 of the Holy Spirit" is a way of referring to devout individuals, who are sensitive to God's leading and surrendered to the Lord.

4. Wise. The Seven are to be "full of wisdom,"283 having good judgment.

So often in our churches we elect as a leader anyone who will accept the position. I believe it is better to have a position remain unfilled than to fill it with an unqualified person who will set poor patterns for a successor and demean both the office and the church itself.

The Names of the Seven (Acts 6:4b)

"They chose284 Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism."285 (Acts 6:4b)

The names of the Seven give us a clue as to who they are. All seven names are Greek names. Marshall notes,

"The seven names are all Greek, which suggests that their bearers were not Palestinian Jews; it is true that Greek names were used by Palestinian Jews (Andrew, Philip), but, apart from Philip, these are unlikely names for Palestinians."286

All have been born Jews except Nicholas of Antioch who is a proselyte to Judaism. In addition to the administrative tasks they have been assigned, we know that Stephen has a powerful ministry of signs and wonders (Acts 6:8) and Philip becomes a powerful evangelist (Acts 8:4-40; 21:8-9). We know little of the others.287

5.2 Stephen's Powerful Ministry (Acts 6:8-14)

"8 Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power,288 did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition 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. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke." (Acts 6:8-10)

Teaching, preaching, working miracles, all by the Holy Spirit -- Stephen is apparently something of a healing evangelist, proclaiming Messiah Jesus among his fellow Greek-speaking Jews. He is an apologist for a Messianic faith that centers on Jesus. He is an example of what is described in the final verse of the longer ending of Mark's Gospel:

"Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it." (Mark 16:20)

When confronted by zealous adversaries among the Jews, his words were so powerful and incisive that none could put forth a reasonable argument against him.

Q2. (Acts 6:3, 8) What list of qualities do you see in Stephen when you combine the apostles' list of qualifications (verse 3) with the description of Stephen's character (verse 8)? Why is a ministry that combines the word with miracles so powerful?

The Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:9)

Notice who his adversaries are.

"Opposition 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." (Acts 6:9)

Prior to its destruction in 587 BC, the temple in Jerusalem served as the focal point of Jewish worship. The synagogue, however, developed while the temple lay destroyed in Jerusalem and the exiles in Babylon sought to nurture the faith of Abraham in a foreign land. Each village in the Jewish region of Babylon had its own synagogue, its own teachers, and, if they were fortunate, portions of the Old Testament Scriptures that would be read and taught.

When the Jews returned after the exile, this system of local synagogues remained. And though the temple was rebuilt by 515 BC, synagogues continued as the center of community life. Jerusalem had many synagogues. The Babylonian Talmud reports 394 synagogues in Jerusalem by the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 AD).289 Even if that is an exaggeration, Jerusalem no doubt had many synagogues in the days of the early church.

No doubt, many people went to the synagogue closest to their home. Other synagogues seem to be organized by national identity. In the case of the Synagogue of the Freedmen,290 it consisted of Jews from the Jewish Diaspora who had returned to Jerusalem to study, work, or retire. Some may have been manumitted slaves ("freedmen") who had been enslaved by the Romans following General Pompey's siege of Jerusalem in 63 BC.

Notice that some of these synagogue members come from the province of Cilicia, the capital of which is Tarsus. As we see in Acts 8:1, Saul of Tarsus, who is probably a member of this synagogue, becomes one of the chief persecutors of the Jerusalem church.

Concerted Opposition (Acts 6:9-12)

Stephen's powerful ministry evokes a powerful reaction. His initial enemies are not the chief priests and the powerful families of the elite. His opponents are the Hellenistic Jews, likely those from his own synagogue, who seem to be even more orthodox and anti-Christian than the Palestinian Jews. I don't think Stephen is on the high priest's "radar" yet because his ministry is taking place among the Greek-speaking Jewish community in Jerusalem.

Not only is he doing miracles and teaching powerfully, but he is winning men and women to Jesus. The synagogue leaders see their people following the Way of Jesus and they react with vehemence. Look at this opposition.

Vocal opposition (verses 9-10). They begin by standing against him publicly.

"9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called).... These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke." (Acts 9-10)

People seem to be standing up while he is speaking and disputing or arguing against him.291 The problem is that Stephen is speaking so powerfully by the Holy Spirit that nothing they say seems to make a dent in the effect of his words. They are unable stand against292 his teaching; their opposition is getting no traction with the people whatsoever.

False accusations of heresy (verse 11). When their vocal opposition doesn't work, they turn to a campaign of false accusations.

"Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.'" (Acts 6:11)

They take Stephen's words and twist or exaggerate them so they sound heretical. But they do this slyly, secretly.293 Instead of making the accusations themselves, they get others to accuse them, hiding the identity of the opposition's leaders. Unfortunately, when something is said often enough, people begin to wonder, to believe it possible, even if it isn't true.

The accusation is of "words of blasphemy." The adjective here is blasphēmos, "defaming, denigrating, demeaning."294 They claim Stephen has been demeaning both Moses and his teachings as well as God himself. This is designed to undermine his influence among the Greek-speaking Jewish community that up to now have been receptive to his message.

Arrest and charges before the Sanhedrin (verses 12). Now his enemies agitate to get the Palestinian Jewish leaders on their side, the people with power to destroy Stephen.

"So they stirred up295 the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin." (Acts 6:12)

Elders and teachers of the law would have been the members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Council of 70. Once the council members are in a furor over the false claims, they violently arrest Stephen, bring him before the Council,296 and produce false witnesses.

False Accusations (Acts 6:13-14)

"13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, 'This fellow never stops297 speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy298 this place and change the customs299 Moses handed down to us.'" (Acts 6:13-14)

The accusations seemed to center on Stephen's teaching concerning (1) the temple and (2) the Mosaic law. You may recall that Jesus was accused of saying he would destroy the temple in three days, which he meant figuratively rather than literally (John 2:19-21; Matthew 26:60-61; 27:40). Something Stephen taught was twisted by his enemies also. We know that the Jerusalem Christian community was deeply involved in temple worship (Acts 2:46; 5:42). But perhaps Stephen is speaking against corruption in the temple leadership or a focus on the glorious temple buildings rather than the God who dwells there. Perhaps his teaching about Jesus' return is twisted into a physical threat against the temple; we're not sure. Perhaps Stephen was teaching, like the author of Hebrews, that Jesus is the Sacrifice that fulfills the sacrificial requirements for forgiveness of sin in himself, and that the sacrificial system itself is becoming obsolete (Hebrews 8:13).

When they construe Stephen to be saying that Jesus would "change the customs Moses handed down to us," they may have been referring not to the Torah itself, but rather the oral law, or the interpretations of the rabbis, a couple of centuries later codified in the Mishnah and Talmud.

At any rate, they see Stephen as a threat, since he is such an effective spokesman for the rapidly growing Christian movement. He has to be stopped.

During the time his accusers are speaking before the Sanhedrin, Stephen is silent. A strange phenomenon begins to happen with Stephen's face.

"All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently300 at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel." (Acts 6:14)

"Like the face of an angel" means that perhaps his face is shining like Moses' face after spending time in God's presence (Exodus 34:29-34). His judges are ready to condemn him, yet he is obviously filled with the glory of God. It is likely that this memory comes from the Apostle Paul himself who was there beholding him.

5.3 Stephen's Speech before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:1-53)

Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin was not intended as a legal defense designed to get him released. You don't hear any pleading, any defending himself from his enemies' charges. He does answer their charges, as we will see, but he does it by means of an indictment against the Jewish nation and its leaders, not as a way to escape judgment. In this way, he follows in the traditions of some of the Hebrew prophets who spoke truth to power no matter what the consequences.

The style of Stephen's speech seems to follow a traditional rehearsal of Israel's history as a jumping off point for sharing the good news of Jesus the Messiah. We see this elsewhere:

  • Acts 13:16-41 is Paul's address to the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch recounting Israel's history (Acts 13:16-41).
  • Psalm 78 rehearses God's salvation, Israel's rejection, and God's sending of David to shepherd his people, a hint of David's son the Messiah who brings salvation through Jesus Christ.
  • Psalm 105 recalls God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt as a result of God's covenant with Abraham.
  • Psalm 106 seems to follow the thought of the previous psalm, but focuses on Israel's sins of unbelief in the wilderness.

Stephen stands first in a long line of Christian apologists who have opposed the Jews' rejection of Jesus.

With that introduction, let's look briefly at Stephen's speech. My goal is to see how his speech answers the charges made against him (and follow some "rabbit trails" that interest me). For details on the actual incidents described from the Old Testament, see my study of them in Disciple Lessons from the Faith of Abraham and Moses the Reluctant Leader, as well as my Disciple Lessons from Hebrews.

1. Patriarchal period (Acts 7:2-16)

Stephen's account of Abraham's call follows the narrative of Genesis 11:31-12:5. Stephen notes that "the God of glory" spoke to Abram both in Ur as well as Haran.301 I love this title: "God of glory." It appears once in this form in the Psalms:

"The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord thunders over the mighty waters." (Psalm 29:3)

Often, Yahweh -- and Jesus -- are associated with glory, overwhelming radiance.

"Lift up your heads, O you gates;
be lifted up, you ancient doors,
that the King of glory may come in." (Psalm 24:7-10)

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory." (Isaiah 6:3)

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory,
the glory of the One and Only,
who came from the Father,
full of grace and truth." (John 1:14)

Stephen continues the story of Abraham's call, so well-known to the Jewish people, the history of their people.

"'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.'" (Acts 7:3; quoting Genesis 12:1)

I am always astounded by Abraham's faith. Sure, young couples often make crazy decisions to travel across the country or half-way around the world. But old men don't do that. They settle down; they eschew major changes.

It is one thing to make a decision to move a short distance. It is quite another to conclude that God is directing you to make a trip of that distance. When you obey in something of this magnitude, you give up control of your life to another, something we humans are loathe to do. Abraham's faith kicks in and he trusts his future into the hands of the "God of glory." Hallelujah!

God promises him that his descendants will inherit the whole land of Canaan, though at that time he has no children and he possesses only a small burial place. Abraham's faith marks him. God tells him of the sojourn in the land of Egypt that takes place long after his death; he relates the promise of the Exodus to come, a promise handed down from father to son for hundreds of years until it comes to pass. God gives him a sign of the covenant, and immediately Abraham and all in his house are circumcised. That's obedience and faith!

Now Stephen moves on to the sons of Jacob, the twelve patriarchs of Israel. Notice how Stephen tells the story:

"9 Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles." (Acts 7:9--10a)

Here begins one of Stephen's recurring themes. The Jews reject and persecute God's chosen vessel, but God raises him up. Stephen relates the details of how Joseph saves God's people in Egypt from starvation.

2. Moses and the Law (Acts 7:17-43)

Following this general introduction, Stephen focuses on the deliverance from Egypt centuries later under Moses. There are many ways to tell the familiar story of the Exodus. Watch what Stephen emphasizes in light that he has been falsely charged with blaspheming Moses and the law.

A pharaoh who "knew not Joseph" arises to afflict God's people. Moses is recognized as a son of Pharaoh's daughter, a prince in Egypt. He kills an overseer beating an Israelite.

"Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not." (Acts 7:25)

Reading between the lines: Neither do the Jews recognize Jesus when he comes to rescue his people. When Moses tries to settle an argument the next day, an Israelite responds,

"Who made you ruler and judge over us?" (Acts 7:27)

It reminds me of the Jewish leaders questioning Jesus' teaching after he has thrown the commercial element out of the temple.

"Tell us by what authority you are doing these things.... Who gave you this authority?" (Luke 20:2)

Back to Moses. Forty years later, Yahweh appears to Moses in the burning bush and sends him back to Egypt to deliver his people. Now Stephen begins to emphasize his point:

"This is the same Moses whom they had rejected with the words, 'Who made you ruler and judge?' He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself." (Acts 7:35).

Stephen makes another point about Moses.

"This is that Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.'" (Acts 7:37)

The Jews of Stephen's day believed this prophet referred to in Deuteronomy 18:15 to be the Messiah who was to come (John 1:21, 45). The early church proclaimed Jesus to be this Prophet promised by Moses (Acts 3:22). Now Stephen emphasizes the Israelites' unbelief and disobedience.

"But our fathers refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt." (Acts 7:39)

The Israelites turned to a golden calf and idol worship. In verses 43 and 44 he cites a prophecy in Amos 5:25-27 to the effect that such continued idol worship is the cause of the Exile in Babylon. Hard hearts.

Stephen is accused of blaspheming Moses and the Law, but it is the people of Israel who have a history of rejecting the leaders God sends to them and the covenant he makes with them.

3. The Tabernacle and the Temple (Acts 7:44-50)

Now Stephen turns to the tabernacle and the temple. Keep in mind the accusation against him.

"This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law." (Acts 6:13)

Steven recounts the tabernacle in the wilderness, the "tent of witness" that God had directed Moses to make "according to the pattern302 he had seen" (Acts 7:44b). The Jewish leaders have made a kind of idol of the temple, as if God actually dwelt there. Stephen reminds them that "the Most High does not dwell in houses made by men," and quotes as his support Isaiah 66:1-2a. "Heaven is my throne," not earth -- it is only a footstool. The ark that was once in the tabernacle and temple (but was taken by the Babylonians and never returned) symbolizes the "mercy seat," the place where God dwells between the cherubim, but it is only a symbol of the divine reality. The writer of Hebrews carries this theme even further than Stephen:

"[The high priests] serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven." (Hebrews 8:5)

In other words, the real temple is in heaven, not on earth; the real throne of God is in heaven. But none of this is blasphemy against the temple; it is a reminder of what the prophets clearly taught.303 Jesus said something similar to the Samaritan woman at the well:

"Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.... The true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks." (John 4:21, 23)

Stephen's Indictment of the Jewish Leaders (Acts 7:51-53)

Up until now, the Jewish leaders would have grudgingly agreed with his retelling and interpretation of Israel's history of deliverers. But now, Stephen makes the logical connections -- and signs his own death warrant in the process.

"You stiff-necked people,
with uncircumcised hearts and ears!
You are just like your fathers.
You always resist the Holy Spirit!" (Acts 7:51)

They all knew the history of Israel sinning against God through idolatry, disobedience, and rebellion against God. Stephen says, "You are as bad as your fathers!"

Stiff-necked, that is, stubborn.304 God had long called his rebellious people stiff-necked.305

"For I knew how stubborn you were;
the sinews of your neck were iron,
your forehead was bronze." (Isaiah 48:4)

Uncircumcised hearts and ears. Circumcision was a sign of obedience to God's covenant. Circumcision of the heart would mean a soft and tender heart towards God. Circumcision of the ears would mean an openness to God's voice and his Word. They were circumcised outwardly, by not in the inner person. Many times the prophets had accused the Israelizes of uncircumcised hearts.306

Resistant. Perhaps "to resist" is too mild. The Greek word means "to fall upon, run against," then, "to be adverse, oppose, strive against."307

As I consider these descriptions, I think of my own heart. How often has it been stubborn, hard, not wanting to listen to correction, unwilling to be led, rebellious. How much grace must God have to love us, redeem us, and tenderly put up with us as he trains us as his disciples!

Stephen isn't finished with his indictment. You are not only like your fathers, he is saying. You're worse than they are!

"52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed308 and murdered him -- 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect309 through angels but have not obeyed310 it." (Acts 7:52-53)

The Jews understood angels as being present as intermediaries when the Law was given to the Israelites.311 But even with such impressive beings as angels involved, they don't even keep the Law, Stephen says.

Q3. (Acts 7:51) Stephen accuses the Jewish leaders of stubbornness, hard-heartedness, and resistance to God. Have you ever noticed these tendencies in your own heart? What must you do if you see such things in yourself?

The Righteous One (Acts 7:52)

Before we move on, I want to explore a wonderful title for the Messiah found in verse 52 -- "the Righteous One." Here, "righteous" is in the sense of Jesus as the ideal of an upright person, innocent, holy.312 Pilate's wife used the term to warn Pilate of harming "that innocent man." The centurion who killed him spoke in awe of him as a "righteous man." Yes, he is innocent. He is the unblemished sacrifice, the Lamb of God given for the sins of all mankind (1 John 2:1).

But he is also the just, fair, equitable judge of all mankind, the Righteous Judge (Psalm 45:6-7; Isaiah 11:4), the "Righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land" (Jeremiah 23:5-6).

The Righteous One is an early title of Messiah Jesus.

"You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you." (Acts 3:14)

The Apostle Paul uses the term when recalling Ananias' words to him at his conversion.

"The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will
and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth." (Acts 22:14)

Again in a Messianic prophecy:

"See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey." (Zechariah 9:9)

Finally, when dealing with our sins, the Apostle John tells us that our Advocate pleading our case before the Father will be "Jesus Christ, the Righteous One" (1 John 2:1).

The prophesied Righteous One has come and you Jewish leaders, by deceit and unrighteous betrayal, have killed him, Stephen says.

Q4. (Acts 7:52) In what senses is Jesus "the Righteous One"? How should his righteousness challenge our sinfulness? In 1 John 2:1-2, why is the Righteous One our Advocate before the Father? How does Jesus deal with the great gap caused by our unrighteousness?

The Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-8:1)

Stephen never argues that he should be released, for his death was inevitable. Instead, he uses his response to the charges to present Jesus with clarity and bring an indictment against Messiah's enemies. The accused becomes the accuser and the reaction is predictable.

"When they heard this, they were furious313 and gnashed314 their teeth at him." (Acts 7:54)

All over the Sanhedrin chaos is breaking out. Stephen, however, doesn't respond or react. He is having a heavenly vision.

"55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 'Look,' he said, 'I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.'" (Acts 7:55-56)

Stephen's face is lifted up and he is staring transfixed315 at a heavenly vision opening up before him. He sees Yahweh in all his glory and Jesus at his side, and he speaks aloud of what he sees. His identification of Jesus as the Son of Man reminds us of Daniel's vision of the heavenly courtroom:

"13 Behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14  And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom...
an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13--14)

The Jerusalem Sanhedrin in all their self-importance will last another 40 years or so and then recede into history, but Jesus' Kingdom will never end. Hallelujah!

Nevertheless, bedlam reigns in the Council and soon spills out into the streets.

"57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul." (Acts 7:57-58)

The Romans have denied the Jews the authority to carry out a death penalty, but this seems almost like a spontaneous riot or mob action sparked by intense, unreasoning anger. There is no stopping them. Saul (later called Paul) watches their outer garments as they strip to throw rocks that would kill Stephen.

"And Saul was there, giving approval316 to his death" (Acts 8:1a).

Intentional Spirit-Deafness (Acts 7:57)

Some people stop their ears from hearing truth without literally putting their hands over their ears. Paul describes what is going on from a spiritual viewpoint:

"The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4:4)

Paul also offers guidance on how to deal with opponents.

"Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:25--26)

Openness to the truth is a work of the Holy Spirit, not our persuasiveness. God's grace is what is required.

"Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (1 Timothy 1:13--14)

God's grace can cover a multitude of sins.

Christ-likeness in Death (Acts 7:59-60; 8:2)

"59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold317 this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:59-60)

Stephen echoes two prayers that Jesus prayed from the cross.

"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

Chapter 8 begins,

"Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him." (Acts 8:2)

Stephen is honored in his death and becomes an inspiration for many in what turns into a season of persecution.

Stephen is a great man who challenges and encourages the church. He shows them how to proclaim Jesus, how to live, and how to die. Stephen is God's gift to the Jerusalem church, and even more to us today.

Lessons for Disciples

We see many things in our passage that we disciples can learn from and apply to our churches and ministries.

  1. Church growth comes in cycles. At times, the number swells. At other times it levels off, such as in times of persecution. We should look seriously at the causes when growth plateaus for any length of time, unless the local population is declining or the community is over-saturated with churches (Acts 6:1, 7; 8:1).
  2. Some tension is normal in a church. We are humans, after all. But when strife erupts it can endanger the health of the church. Leaders must take wise action to deal with the root causes, such as the apostles did with the unfair distribution of food to widows (Acts 6:1-4)
  3. Leaders must delegate tasks to others, so they can remain focused on their primary responsibilities and giftings (Acts 6:2-4).
  4. Those charged with responsible positions in the church need to meet clear spiritual criteria, such as being reputable, wise, and full of the Holy Spirit. Character and integrity are so important in a leader (Acts 6:3; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).
  5. Preaching combined with miracles is extremely powerful in winning people to Christ. That is one reason Stephen was so strongly opposed (Acts 6:8-9).
  6. Stephen characterizes the Jewish leaders as stubborn, lacking a soft heart towards God, and resistant to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes these very qualities can infect our spirits and those of church leaders, requiring heart repentance (Acts 7:51-53).
  7. Jesus is the Righteous One, the Righteous Judge. Yet, he comes showing mercy, and appears as the Advocate when God's children sin, since he is the Atoning Sacrifice for our sins (Acts 7:52; 1 John 2:1-2).
  8. God's grace is required to overcome "Spirit deafness" in our opponents. Only the Holy Spirit can change such hearts (Acts 7:57; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Timothy 2:25-26; 1 Timothy 1:13-14).

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Father, thank you for men and women who, like Stephen, have loved you to the death. Help me to have that kind of courage and faith that refuses to bend to pressure that he might display the glory of Christ to his world. Have mercy on us. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:3--4, NIV)

"Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people." (Acts 6:8, NIV)

"While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he fell on his knees and cried out, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he fell asleep." (Acts 7:59--60, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[268] "Became obedient" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "were obedient" (KJV) is the imperfect of the verb hypakouō, "to follow instructions, obey, follow, be subject to" (BDAG 1028, 1). The Lexham English Bible translates the imperfect with the ingressive sense, "began obeying."

[269] "Complained" (NIV), "complaint" (ESV, NRSV), "murmuring" (KJV) is the noun gongusmos, "utterance made in a low tone of voice" (the context indicates whether the utterance is one of discontent or satisfaction), behind-the-scenes talk." Negative aspect: complaint, displeasure," expressed in murmuring (BDAG 204).

[270] "Neglected" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "overlooked" (NIV) is the imperfect participle (suggesting continued action in the past) of paratheōreō, "to pay insufficient attention, with resulting deficiency in response, overlook, leave unnoticed, neglect" (BDAG 763).

[271] "Distribution" (ESV), "distribution of food" (NRSV, NIV), "ministration" (KJV) is the noun diakonia, "performance of a service, here, rendering specific assistance, "aid, support" (BDAG 230, 4).

[272] "Give up" (ESV), "neglect" (NIV, NRSV), "leave" (KJV) is aorist participle of the verb kataleipō, "leave," here, "to set something aside in the interest of something else, leave," "set to one side, neglect" (BDAG 521, 7c).

[273] Proskartereō, BDAG 881, 2a. The verb is in the present tense, suggesting a continued, ongoing persistence in ministry.

[274] "Prayer" is the noun proseuchē, "petition addressed to deity, prayer" (BDAG 878, 1).

[275] "Pick out" (ESV), "choose" (NIV), "select" (NRSV), "look ye out" (KJV) is the aorist imperative of the verb episkeptomai, "examine, inspect," here, "look for" with interest in selection, "select" (BDAG 378, 1).

[276] "Appoint" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "turn over" (NIV) is the future indicative of kathistēmi, "to assign someone a position of authority, appoint, put in charge" (BDAG 492, 2a).

[277] "Set before" (ESV, KJV), "presented" (NIV), "stand before" (NRSV) is the aorist indicative of the verb histēmi, "to cause to be in a place or position, set, place, bring, allow to come" (BDAG 482, A1).

[278] The phrase "laid their hands on them" uses the aorist of the verb epitithēmi, "lay, put upon" (BDAG 384, 1aα). Other examples of the laying on of hands are in Acts 8:17; 9:17; 8:19; 9:12; etc.

[279] For more on this see my article, "Lifting Hands in Worship," Paraclete, Winter 1986, pp. 4-8 (www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/hands.htm).

[280] Gynē can refer, depending upon the context to (1) "an adult female person, woman," (2) a married woman, wife," or "a newly married woman, bride" (BDAG 209).

[281] "Known" (NIV), "good repute" (ESV), "good standing" (NRSV), "honest report" (KJV) is present passive participle of martureō, "testify, witness," here, "to affirm in a supportive manner, testify favorably, speak well (of), approve," passive, "be well spoken of, be approved" (BDAG 618, 2b).

[282] "Full" is the adjective plērēs, of persons, "filled, full," mostly "full "of a power, gift, feeling, characteristic quality, etc. here and Acts 7:35; 9:36 (BDAG 827, 1b).

[283] "Wisdom" is sophia, "the capacity to understand and function accordingly, wisdom," here, "Good judgment in the face of human and specific Christian demands (practical) wisdom" (BDAG 935, 1bα).

[284] "Chose" is the aorist indicative of the verb eklegomai (from which we get our word, "elect"), "to make a choice in accordance with significant preference, select someone/something for oneself (BDAG 305, 2a).

[285] "Proselyte" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "convert to Judaism" (NIV) is prosēlytos, "one who has come over from polytheism to Judean religion and practice, convert" (BDAG 880).

[286] Marshall, Acts, p. 135.

[287] Some have linked Nicolas of Antioch with the heretical group of Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6, 15; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.26.3), but this is dubious. According to tradition, Parmenas was martyred at Philippi during the reign of Trajan (ISBE 3:633).

[288] "Full of grace and power" (ESV, NIV, NRSV), "full of faith and power" (KJV). The KJV uses "faith" from the Byzantine text, rather than "grace" (supported by P74 ℵ A B D etc.).

[289] Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 105a.

[290] "Synagogue of the Freedmen" (ESV, NIV, NRSV), "synagogue of the Libertines" (KJV) is Libertinos, a Latin loanword from Latin libertinus, meaning a person who was manumitted. "Freedperson" (BDAG 594).

[291] "Opposition rose" (NIV), "rose up" (ESV), "arose" (KJV), "stood up" (NRSV) is anistēmi, "stand up, rise" to speak (meaning 6) or "to come/appear to carry out a function or rose, rise up, arise" (meaning 9) (BDAG 83, 6 or 9). "Disputed/disputing" (ESV, KJV), "argue/argued" (NIV, NRSV) is the present participle of suzēteō, "to contend with persistence for a point of view, dispute, debate, argue" (BDAG 954, 2).

[292] "Withstand" (ESV, NRSV), "stand up against" (NIV), "resist" (KJV) is the aorist infinitive of anthistēmi, "be in opposition to, set oneself against, oppose" or perhaps "to be resistant to power, resist" (BDAG 80, meanings 1b or 2).

[293] "Secretly instigated" (ESV, NRSV), "secretly persuaded" (NIV), "suborned" (KJV) is the aorist indicative of hypoballō, "instigate (secretly), suborn" (BDAG 1036). It means literally, "to throw or put under," then "to suggest" to the mind, then "to instruct privately, instigate, suborn" (Thayer, p. 642).

[294] Blasphēmos, BDAG 178.

[295] "Stirred up" is the aorist indicative of sugkineō, "to stir up, move," here, "arose/excite someone" (with focus on emotional aspect) (BDAG 952).

[296] "Came upon him and seized him" (ESV, cf. NRSV), "seized" (NIV), "came upon him and caught him" (KJV) is two words, the aorist participle of ephistēmi, "to stand at or near a specific place, stand at/near," of living entities and often with the connotation of suddenness (BDAG 418, 1); and the aorist indicative of sunarpazō, "to take hold of forcibly, seize (BDAG 966). "Brought" is the aorist indicative of agō, "lead, bring," here as a legal technical term, "to take into custody, lead away, arrest" (BDAG 16, 2).

[297] "Never ceases" (ESV), "never stops" (NIV, NRSV), "ceaseth not" (KJV) is the negative ou, and the present indicative pauō, "to cease doing something, stop (oneself), cease" (BDAG 790, 2).

[298] "Destroy" is the future indicative of katalyō, "to cause the ruin of something, destroy, demolish, dismantle" (BDAG 521, 2a).

[299] "Change the customs" is three words, the future indicative of allassō, "to make something other or different, change, alter" (BDAG 45, 1); and the noun and definite article of ethos (from which we get our word "ethos"), "long-established usage or practice common to a group, custom" (BDAG 277, 2).

[300] "Gazing" (ESV), "looked intently" (NIV, NRSV), "looking steadfastly" (KJV) is the aorist participle of atenizō, "look intently at, stare at" something or someone (BDAG 148).

[301] This follows Philo's account that represents a traditional variant of the Genesis text (Marshall, Acts, p. 144).

[302] "Pattern" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "fashion" (KJV) is the Greek noun typos (from which we get our English words, "typo" and "typographical"), "a kind, class, or thing that suggests a model or pattern, form, figure, pattern" (BDAG 1020, 4). In Exodus 25:9 and 40) "pattern" is the Hebrew noun tabnît, "shape, form," here, "pattern, plan" (Holladay, p. 386; Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #255d), from the verb bānâ, "build, rebuild." In Exodus 26:30, "plan" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "fashion" (KJV) is the Hebrew noun mishpat, "justice, ordinance," here in the sense of "plan" (TWOT #2443c, 10). "Conformity: building-plan" (Holladay, p. 221, 4). The idea of conformity to a specification drives KJV translation, "according to the fashion thereof."

[303] Isaiah 66:1-2a; 1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chronicles 6:18; Psalm 11:4; Matthew 5:34-35; Acts 11:24.

[304] Sklērotrachēlos, "stiff-necked, stubborn" (BDAG 930).

[305] Exodus 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9; Deuteronomy 9:6, 13; 31:27; etc.

[306] Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 6:10: 9:25-26; etc.

[307] Antipiptō, Thayer, p. 51.

[308] "Betrayed" (NIV, ESV), "betrayers" (NRSV, KJV) is the noun prodotēs, "traitor, betrayer" (BDAG 867).

[309] "Put into effect" (NIV), "delivered" (ESV), "ordained" (NRSV), "disposition" (KJV) is the preposition eis, and the noun diatagē, "that which has been ordered or commanded, ordinance, direction," here, "you received the law by directions of angels (i.e. by angels under God's direction [to transmit it])." (BDAG 237).

[310] "Obeyed" (NIV), "keep/kept" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is the aorist indicative of phylassō, "watch, guard," here with the sense, "to continue to keep a law or commandment from being broken -- observe, follow" (BDAG 1068, 5a).

[311] Deuteronomy 33:2 (Septuagint); Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2.

[312] Dikaios, BDAG 246, 1bβ.

[313] "Furious" (NIV), "enraged" (ESV, NRSV), "cut to the heart" (KJV) is the imperfect indicative of the verb diatriō, "saw through/asunder," here figuratively, "be cut to the quick, be infuriated." Also in Acts 5:33 (BDAG 235).

[314] "Gnashed" (NIV, KJV), "ground" (ESV, NRSV) is the imperfect indicative of brychō, "to grind one's teeth, gnash," a sign of violent rage (BDAG 184).

[315] "Looked up" (NIV), "looked up steadfastly" (KJV), "gazed" (ESV, NRSV) is the aorist participle of atenizō, "look intently at, start at" something or someone (BDAG 148), that we saw in Acts 1:10; 3:4; and 6:15.

[316] "Approved" (ESV, NRSV), "giving approval" (NIV), "was consenting" (KJV) is the present participle of suneudokeō, "to join in approval, agree with, approve of, consent to, sympathize with" (BDAG 790).

[317] "Hold" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "lay to their charge" (KJV) is the aorist subjunctive of the verb histēmi, "place," here, "to set up or put into force, establish," in our verse, "do not hold this sin against them" (BDAG 482, 3).

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