Acts Lesson Thirteen: 6:8-15 – Stephen’s Witness
8 Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some from what is called the Freedmen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.
11 Then they persuaded some men to say, “We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God!” 12 They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, dragged him off, and took him to the Sanhedrin. 13 They also presented false witnesses who said, “This man does not stop speaking blasphemous words against this holy place and the law. 14 For we heard him say that Jesus, this Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.” 15 And all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him and saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (HCSB)
Today’s passage serves as a deeper introduction of Stephen and lays the groundwork for the events that occur in chapter seven. Before we start today’s lesson, let’s list six features of his character and ministry, with a couple of them stated in the previous lesson.
- He was full of faith – 6:5.
- He was full of the Holy Spirit – 6:5.
- He was full of God’s grace and power – 6:8.
- His opponents were members of the Freedmen’s Synagogue.
- His opponents couldn’t stand up to Stephen’s wisdom.
- His opponents couldn’t stand up against the Holy Spirit, who spoke through him.
Opposition to Servants: Acts 6:8-11 When a person is selected for church leadership, the type of ministry experiences may be different from what they expected.
Up until this point, Scripture only mentions the Apostles performing miracles (Acts 2:43; 5:12). But we read that Stephen also had the power to perform miracles. Since it’s clear that the performing of miracles was not restricted to an Apostle, what conclusion can we draw? It would seem that it was the level of faith and filling of the Holy Spirit that empowered Stephen to perform miracles for the glory of God. If that is true, and Scripture leads one to believe it is, then miracles can still be performed today. However, why do we rarely, or ever, see miracles in the Western church, but we do sometimes hear about miracles in the mission field? This is my position, based upon what is contained in Scripture and the characteristics of the church today.
- The Holy Spirit is not emphasized or even mentioned in many churches. In some cases, this may be deliberate as a counterbalance to those churches that may overemphasize the working of the Spirit. Both positions are wrong. God exists in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is clear from our journey through Acts so far that the Spirit was the source of power, just as Jesus claimed, for the events that were occurring.
- Faith has been replaced with consumerism and materialism in the congregation and leadership. Ministry leaders have wrongly determined that their church and service must be attractively marketed to persuade people to attend. God doesn’t need marketing; He needs faithful shepherd leaders who follow Scripture. Congregation members are often concerned with having their needs met instead of worshipping God and contributing to their church. Appearance and reputation have replaced content and substance as the most important “measurable” of the church.
- Those in the mission field often have a higher reliance on the Spirit and an understanding of the evil spiritual forces opposed to their work. Their level of faith and reliance on the Spirit is often higher.
- The modern church could see miracles occur if they follow the blueprint in Acts.
First, let’s define the Freedmen’s Synagogue.
- Historical records indicate that sections in Jerusalem were comprised primarily of Jews who had settled in the city from various nations in the area. The freedmen were descendants of Jews previously held as slaves but who were now free from Rome.
- This particular synagogue was comprised of people from Cyrenians and Alexandrians. Both of these people groups came from locations in North Africa. People from Cilicia and Asia. The second people group, Cilicians and Asians, were from areas in modern-day Turkey and Syria.
- Thinking ahead in the book of Acts, it’s possible that Paul may have been in this synagogue since Paul came from Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 21:39). However, there is no historical data to prove this position conclusively.
During this period, Judaism had four key symbols, and challenging any of them could provoke a confrontation.
- The Temple.
- The Law or Torah.
- The holy land focused predominately on Jerusalem and the Temple.
- The national, ethnic identity of all Jews and proselytes.
Because paganism was rampant in the areas around Israel, even with the nation itself, faithful Jews knew they had to zealously guard their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and not tolerate any new ideas that could result in a compromise or idol worship.
We don’t know the basis of the dispute between Stephen and this particular synagogue, but based on the context of what had occurred since Jesus’ ministry and the early church so far in Acts, it seems reasonable to conclude that the synagogue felt that Stephen’s message undermined at least one of the four key symbols listed above. Their conclusion was that Stephen was committing blasphemy.
This is a short but powerful verse. Those who chose to debate Stephen about the Gospel message were sorely outmatched. A quick explanation of the Jewish understanding of wisdom, based upon cultural and Old Testament concepts.
- Wisdom refers to a person’s approach to life.
- This approach came from a life in the covenant given by God and was considered a gift from God.
The Greek word used here for wisdom occurs only four times in Acts (6:3, 10; 7:10, 22), and it refers to inspired wisdom through the power of the Spirit. This would verify what Jesus said in Luke 21:15, for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
Regardless of the motivation of the Freemen Synagogue, they no put into place a plan to kill Stephen. In many ways, what transpires is similar to what happened to Jesus leading up to His crucifixion.
Now the plot against Stephen begins to unfold. We can speculate about the reasoning behind the plot, but in the end, it doesn’t matter if it was jealousy or, like the case with Paul (Saul), they felt they were the ones being faithful to God, and Stephen wasn’t. The Greek word hypoballo, translated here as “persuaded,” actually evokes a much stronger meaning. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to hire a person to act in a particular way, often involving dishonest activities – to hire, to bribe, to induce. The bribe was to spread a rumor throughout Jerusalem that Stephen was speaking blasphemy against Moses and God, a grave charge in first-century Israel and the only case where capital punishment administered by the Jews was allowed by the occupying Romans.
We should take a moment and consider why would displaced Jews who returned to Jerusalem act in such a vehement way. In general, Hellenistic Jews tended to be less dogmatic than Hebraic Jews. However, they were highly nationalistic and were highly zealous when it came to the Law and the Temple. In some academic circles, they were labeled as “Zionists.”
The false charges brought against Stephen are quite similar to what the religious leaders tried to do with Jesus. However, in Jesus’ case, they couldn’t produce any evidence that He had violated the sanctity of the Temple, Law, or God. Therefore, they couldn’t execute Him themselves, so they brought Him to Pilate and had Jesus executed by the occupying Romans. As events unfold in Stephen’s case, the Sanhedrin is able to falsely convict Stephen of the charge of blasphemy.
Persecution of Servants: Acts 6:12-15 Even in the most difficult of circumstances, God can provide comfort and peace – even in the face of death.
The end result is for the first time, the general population of Jerusalem began to oppose the young church. In addition to the residents of Jerusalem, the elders (representing the Sadducees) and the scribes (representing the Pharisees) were involved. The third arrest of Christians now took place, soon to be followed by a third trial before the Sanhedrin.
The false charges are now presented before the Sanhedrin. In addition to those previously against Stephen, false witnesses are now produced to add more weight to the false claims presented against him. The charges are focused on two areas.
- Blasphemous words against the Law.
- To speak against Moses was to speak against the Law.
- The false witnesses claimed they heard Stephen preaching that Jesus would change the customs of Moses, hence the Law which they held sacred would be changed.
- Blasphemous words against the holy place.
- The holy place was the temple.
- To first-century Jews, this was viewed as the dwelling place of God, with His very presence in the holy of holies.
- An attack against the temple was considered an attack against God.
Although the charges were false, they stirred up the people as well as the Sanhedrin because of the perceived seriousness of the accusations. As previously stated, the entire situation bears a striking resemblance to the charges brought against Jesus. While it is true that Jesus desired to bring change to Jewish society, He never threatened to destroy the temple, and He affirmed the Law by stating that He came to fulfill the Law.
Now that the charges were stated, they turned to Stephen to see how he would respond. We can only wonder if Stephen’s reaction caused any surprise on the part of the Sanhedrin. On the one hand, there was doubt about the seriousness of the charges brought against him. On the other hand, the Sanhedrin had already had two trials with Christians as defendants, and they had yet to instill any sense of fear or remorse on the defendant’s part.
Let’s define one phrase before we go further in this verse. The phrase is “looked intently.” The Greek word is atenizo, and from the Greek-English Lexicon, we see that it means: to fix one’s eyes on some object continually and intensely—to look straight at, to stare at, to keep one’s eyes fixed on. The entire Sanhedrin was now focused on Stephen and what his response would be to the charges. It is very likely that Stephen was intensely staring back at the high priest.
There are several possible reasons and characteristics for Stephen’s appearance to resemble an angel.
- Stephen was filled with the Spirit and had no fear.
- He wasn’t angry.
- He wasn’t fearful.
- He held no bitterness.
- He possessed a quiet confidence.
- He looked peaceful.
- He felt secure.
- He had courage.
- It is possible that his face reflected divine glory, just as Moses’ face did in Exodus 34:29 and referenced in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18.
- Both Moses and Stephen bore the mark of having been with God.
- However, Stephen was accused of speaking against both Moses and God.
This sets the stage for what will transpire in the next lesson.
- Develop your spiritual life and gifts so that you are ready when God calls you. We also need to be flexible as the calling may not be where we expect it.
- Allow yourself to be used in various kinds of ministry. Although we should serve predominately in the area(s) of our gifting, we may be called to serve temporarily in other areas. Regardless of what area you’re called to serve in, at the forefront or in the background, serve faithfully.
- Don’t try and serve God without proper preparation or qualifications. Serving in this way will likely result in disappointment and maybe even hurt the ministry.
- If you are involved in any type of public ministry, expect opposition. Scripture is filled with faithful and godly men and women who faced opposition. To think that we would escape opposition for faithful work is wishful thinking.