Yesterday’s story (about how the church solved the tension between Hebraists and Hellenists over the distribution of food to widows) also introduced the next important figure in Acts: Stephen. He was one of the seven Hellenists chosen to oversee the care of widows. Today, we find out he’s also a passionate evangelist.6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
The description of him as being full of God’s grace and power (and back in verse 5, as being “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”) is a signal that he’s got God’s backing – evidenced by the signs and wonders he was performing. Like the apostles, he’s been given the authority to speak for God. And like the apostles back in chapter 4 and 5, this provokes some opposition:6:9 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—who began to argue with Stephen.
So now we have some Hellenistic Jews opposing the Gospel. They argue with Stephen. But since Stephen has received power when the Holy Spirit came on him to be Jesus’ witness in Jerusalem (remember Acts 1:8)?), they have no chance:6:10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
So what happens when you can’t win an argument? You work out another way to get to your opponent:6:11-12 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” 12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
We’re back again before the Temple establishment. (‘Cause that went so well for them the last time.)6:13-14 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
It’s a bit puzzling that Luke calls them “false witnesses.” If we look at his speech (which we’ll get to next week), he was – in a sense – speaking against the Temple. And Jesus did make a claim about destroying “this temple” (see John 2) – although he was referring to his own body, of course. It’s just that no-one else at the time got the reference. So a fair bit of their testimony seems to be accurate enough, although the bit about speaking “against the law” and wanting to “change the customs Moses handed down to us” may be a touch exaggerated.
But it makes more sense if you step back and see the pattern. Who else can you think of who performed great signs and wonders among the people? Who provoked opposition, yet no-one could win an argument against him? Who got arrested and dragged before the Jewish leaders on trumped up charges involving false witnesses saying something about destroying the temple? Oh, that’s right…6:15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
A bit like Jesus, whose face got all shiny up on a mountain?
Fast-forward to the end of his speech which has the Jewish leaders in a murderous rage (spoiler alert), and Luke continues the parallels:7:54-56 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it does. Jesus, in his sham of a trial,said “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” (Luke 22:69).
And Stephen’s echo of Jesus’ statement gets a similar reaction, blocking their ears so they don’t hear the blasphemy:7:57-58 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 coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
And while he was being killed, Stephen says two more things that I’m sure remind you of Jesus:7:59-60 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 hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
(Compare with: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46a); “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34); and “When he had said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46b).)8:1a And Saul approved of their killing him.
Possibly in contrast with the centurion who witnessed Jesus’ death and said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).
So what’s with all the parallels?
Luke goes to great lengths to show how Stephen is following in Jesus’ footsteps. He’s the first martyr of the church. Or, perhaps more accurately, the second martyr. Jesus is the first.
Stephen, then, represents all the others who will follow that path, showing how martyrdom for the sake of Christ is sharing not just in Jesus’ suffering, but also in his glory. And he models “how to die” as a martyr – the same way Jesus did, looking ahead to the glory that awaits, and with an attitude of forgiveness toward his persecutors and of submission to the will of God.
To think about
The vast majority of us won’t be martyred for our faith. This should remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who do face this. But also, it should challenge our attitude toward the little sufferings we experience for the sake of God. Do we, like Stephen, do so consciously imitating our saviour – forgiving those who mistreat us and submitting to God’s will?