THE FIRST MARTYR Acts 6–7
“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’ ” (Acts 7:59–60).The good sometimes die young. But never unnoticed.
Conflict in the community was resolved by appointing seven deacons (6:1–7). One of them, Stephen, spoke so effectively that other Greek-speaking Jews attempted to have him done away with (vv. 8–15). In his defense, Stephen reviewed Israel’s history (7:1–34) to demonstrate Israel’s historic rejection of Moses and his Law (vv. 35–43) and its distortion of temple worship (vv. 44–50). Stephen charged that in the same rebellious spirit, this court betrayed and murdered Jesus, God’s Messiah (vv. 50–56). The court became a mob and stoned Stephen (vv. 57–59).
Understanding the Text
“The Grecian Jews among them complained” Acts 6:1. The Grecian Jews were most likely Jews who had come to Judea from foreign lands, but spoke only Greek and no Semitic language. Documents reflecting the first century show that such Jews, whether converts or Jewish by birth, were looked down on by natives of the Holy Land. Apparently the prejudice survived conversion. The dispute over neglect of Grecian Jewish widows may well reflect a sharper split in the Jerusalem church. Most people try to maintain groups by keeping out those who differ, not by seeking to include them. Christian sociologists have noticed that local churches that appeal to a particular strata of society tend to grow more rapidly. Folks feel comfortable with others who are like them. Thus few American congregations have extremes of wealth and poverty, of low and high degree of education, or of mixed races. Perhaps this is good from a sociological viewpoint. It isn’t from a spiritual viewpoint. God sacrificed His Son to create a church that is one body, united in and around Jesus Christ. When differences of any kind isolate us from others, we distort that truth and violate one of God’s great purposes in the Incarnation. Acts 6 shows us that the Jerusalem church faced, and overcame, the threat raised by prejudice and differences. We need to face and overcome such threats too. “The Twelve gathered all the disciples together” Acts 6:2. How fascinating. The “pastoral staff” didn’t take responsibility for distributing the food. Instead the Apostles led the congregation to solve the problem themselves! Note these principles. You can use them in church—and at home! First, there was no attempt to blame. We need to find solutions, not fault! Second, the leaders suggested a way the congregation might resolve the problem. Again, the leaders didn’t take this responsibility on themselves. The solution could be found by the people involved. Third, the leaders gave the congregation full authority. The people involved, who knew the situation best, were given freedom to correct any injustice. Each step here is important. In church, in families, and in society at large, we tend to be paternalistic. Appointed or elected leaders take on more and more responsibility, and give less and less authority to those affected by the social or personal problems. Acts 6 shows us a better way. That way may not work well in society. But it will work in the Christian church, and in the family where Christ dwells. “Choose seven men” Acts 6:3–7. Did you notice? The NIV version of this passage which some churches refer to when proof texting the role of deacons, doesn’t mention “deacon” at all? Why? Because the title deacon (Gk., diakonos) is not in the Greek text. Why then do other versions have “deacon” in these verses? Because the verb diakoneo, “wait on” or “serve,” and a similiar noun, diakonia, “distribution,” are in the Greek text. What does all this mean? Simply that the ministry of the “deacon” came into being long before the office was invented. And this is important. You and I don’t have to hold an office to serve others. We don’t have to carry a title to minister. What’s more, the function is undoubtedly more important than the office in the sight of God. So let’s not be concerned about holding office in the church. Let’s simply be concerned about serving others for Jesus’ sake. “Full of the Spirit and wisdom” Acts 6:3. You need the Holy Spirit to be a driver for “meals on wheels”? You bet. Any ministry, however menial, must be performed in the Spirit’s power if it is to be a means of grace. Some of the most meaningful ministry I ever had came when I was a young Christian, in the Navy, serving as volunteer janitor at our little Baptist church. What a joyous time those Saturday mornings were, singing as I pushed my broom and arranged chairs in the church basement. There’s no service that’s demeaning to a Christian. And there’s no ministry that we are to perform in our own strength. “Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power” Acts 6:8–15. The “meals on wheels” man, performing miraculous signs and preaching powerfully? You bet. Again, what a false distinction we make in ranking some ministries as “higher” than others. The janitor who cleans the church and the preacher who speaks to the congregation both are God’s servants. Both need to be good men, filled with God’s Spirit. Don’t be surprised if one day the janitor becomes the preacher. Serve God well in small things. Remember, He promotes from within the company. “Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen” Acts 6:8–13. This synagogue was most likely composed of Jews like Stephen who spoke only Greek. One reason for its hostility may well have been the general feeling that Hellenistic (Grecian) Jews were not as “good” Jews as the native born. These Grecian Jews would have a powerful motive to refute Stephen, and thus show orthodoxy. When they could not defeat Stephen by argument, they arranged for false witnesses to charge him with speaking “against Moses, and against God.” That is, they said Stephen rejected the Mosaic Law, and that he showed contempt for the temple at which God was worshiped. Stephen’s defense (Acts 7) is geared to refute these two charges. Lying about someone to defend “orthodoxy” is the last resort of desperate men. And it’s done by Christians today. One recent Christian bestseller roused righteous indignation by charging well-known believers with all sorts of heresies, and “proving” the charges by quoting them—out of context. Just remember when you run across such things, or are tempted to defend the faith that way yourself, that in Acts 6 God is on the side of the victim. That kind of act puts a person right there beside those folks from the Synagogue of the Freedmen who were guilty of Stephen’s death. “Like the face of an angel” Acts 6:15. Don’t take this to mean Stephen’s face shone. In contemporary idiom, saying one’s face was like that of an angel was a compliment given very devout men. Stephen, composed and serene, reflected a calm which could only be ascribed to the Spirit’s presence and his own knowledge of his innocence. “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham” Acts 7:1–34. It was customary in Judaism to incorporate a review of God’s work in history into any declaration of faith. Stephen followed this pattern here. How important for us, as we face any modern test, to have our faith firmly anchored in a grasp of God’s redemptive work in history. We stand in a millennia-old tradition of men and women of God, who have seen God act, and who know that He is totally trustworthy. “The same Moses whom they had rejected” Acts 7:35–43. Stephen’s review of history is more than an affirmation of his faith. It is a bold and courageous confrontation of his accusers. The history which showed God had acted for His people showed that God’s people rejected Moses, and were so disobedient to Moses’ Law that they finally were sent into Exile! Now Israel had compounded the sin by rejecting the “prophet like me [Moses]” whom God had sent! Thus Stephen showed that the men who charged him with disrespect for the Law of Moses were the real culprits, for they rejected the source of a new revelation that that law itself predicted. “What kind of house will you build for Me?” Acts 7:44–50 Disrespect for the Jerusalem temple was viewed by the Sanhedrin as disrespect for God Himself. Stephen showed that God, who fills the heavens and the earth, cannot be totally identified with any human construction. His accusers were the ones guilty of distorting God’s truth. “You stiff-necked people” Acts 7:51–58. With total boldness Stephen drove his point home. His accusers were in the line of those Israelites who persistently resisted God, not those who represented Him. When Stephen had the temerity to shout that he saw Jesus, standing at God’s right hand, the court became a mob and stoned him. Don’t look at Stephen’s boldness as a mistake. The text reminds us that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” as he spoke (v. 55). The martyrdom of Stephen was no more an unavoidable mistake than was the crucifixion of Jesus. Each was an element of the plan of God for His people. It’s a mistake too for us to say about our own lives, “That didn’t turn out well, so it must not have been God’s will.” We can’t judge God’s will that way, for He has a habit of turning “bad” results into unexpected good. “The Son of man standing” Acts 7:54–60. Stephen saw Jesus “standing” by God’s right hand. Why standing? Perhaps because in Jewish courts a person giving testimony stood before the tribunal. As Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin testifying to Jesus, Christ stood before God, speaking for Stephen. In a few moments Stephen, who died with a prayer for his murderers on his lips, was in the presence of the Lord. It matters little what men say to us or do to us. What counts is what Christ says about us before the Father’s throne.
How to Put Down Troublemakers(Acts 6:1–7)
They could have handled it differently. I mean, when people complain, you’ve got to be firm. You tell ’em, “Listen. I’m in charge here. If you have a complaint, put it in writing. I’ll get to it as soon as I can.” And then you drop the complaint in the circular file (wastebasket, to the uninitiated) and go on about your business. I suppose that’s one way to put down troublemakers. Or ignore them. Or lose their files. Or make promises you don’t expect to keep. Or multiply forms, till it’s too much work to fill them out. The Jerusalem church, though, had a little different approach. When Grecian Jewish Christians complained that their widows weren’t getting a fair share when food was distributed, the church listened to them. Then the Apostles got the whole church together, suggested they choose seven known “to be full of the Spirit and wisdom,” and let the seven solve the problem. What’s fascinating is that every one of the seven that the church chose had a Greek name. What does that mean? Simply, that the church, instead of slapping on the label “troublemakers,” gave the people who experienced an injustice the power to correct it. In the process the Hebrew Christians made themselves vulnerable. They surrendered their rights to those who had felt, and had been, victims of their injustice. How did the Jerusalem church put down troublemakers? It didn’t. It lifted the troublemakers up, and gave them the authority they needed to solve the problem they complained about. Can this radical kind of solution work in Christianity today? Yes, if we keep three things in mind.
(1) Don’t view people with problems as troublemakers. Take their concerns seriously.
(2) Don’t be defensive, or try to fix blame for past failings. The past isn’t the issue. The problem is. And
(3), don’t be paternalistic. Don’t think that “leaders” are the only folks who can solve problems. Select wise, Spirit-filled folk who know the problem firsthand, and give them the authority they need to solve it. The Holy Spirit really is resident in the church. We exhibit trust in God when we “put down” our troublemakers, by lifting them up.
The tighter folks hold on to the reins of spiritual power, the less trust they exhibit in God.
“In order to obtain and hold power a man must love it. Thus the effort to get it is not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, craft, and cruelty.”—Leo Tolstoy