Acts Lesson Sixteen

Acts Lesson Sixteen: Acts 7:44-60 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 3

44 “Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses commanded him to make it according to the pattern he had seen. 45 Our ancestors in turn received it and with Joshua brought it in when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers, until the days of David. 46 He found favor in God’s sight and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built Him a house. 48 However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands, as the prophet says: 

49 Heaven is My throne, 

and earth My footstool. 

What sort of house will you build for Me? 

says the Lord, 

or what is My resting place? 

50 Did not My hand make all these things?

51 “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit; as your ancestors did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They even killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. 53 You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.” 

54 When they heard these things, they were enraged in their hearts and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory, with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 56 “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 

57 Then they screamed at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. 58 They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They were stoning Stephen as he called out: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin!” And saying this, he fell asleep. (HCSB)

In this lesson, we conclude Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin and his subsequent martyrdom. I’ll be breaking this passage into three sections.

  • God’s real tabernacle – verses 44-50.
  • Resisting the Holy Spirit – verses 51-53.
  • The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.

God’s Real Tabernacle – 44-50

This section begins with reference to the “tabernacle of the testimony,” which may seem out of place but is connected back to the quote from Amos regarding the tent and star worship. The closer connection revolves around the ideas of the rejection of God, idolatry, and false worship, the primary themes in the wilderness section of the sermon. Those themes are still present here, but Stephen focuses on the object that has resulted in false worship and rejection, the temple.

While Israel lived in the wilderness, the tabernacle was the place of worship. The term “testimony” referred to the stone tablets of the law that were kept in the ark. The tabernacle was provided by God, to His precise guidelines, and the pattern given to Moses. The tabernacle was the place of worship from the time of Moses until the time of David. A change in fortunes occurs once David desired to build a “dwelling place” for God. We know that David didn’t build the temple; he only made known his desire to build it. We read in 2 Samuel 7:1-17 that God didn’t want a dwelling place; He was perfectly content with the tabernacle. Solomon built the temple, and the trouble began as Stephen states in verse 48, “However, the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands.” Stephen follows it with a quote from Isaiah 66:1-2. The passage from Isaiah shows that it is folly to build a house for the creator of the universe since God made all things.

Theologians have debated whether Stephen was rejecting the temple or offering a critique of what the temple had become due to the religious leaders’ failed leadership. From a contextual analysis of Stephen’s entire sermon, it seems he is critiquing the practices and not the location. Stephen is not rejecting the temple as a place of worship. Instead, he is pointing out the abuse of the temple by making it into something other than a location to worship God. By stating in verse 48 that the temple was “made with hands,” he was connecting it to the golden calf in the wilderness. The temple had become an idol to the Jewish religious leaders, and in so doing, the temple had become a replacement for a living relationship with God; the man-made house is worshipped, not God. 

We know from Scripture that God is not confined to a specific location.

  • God revealed Himself to Abraham in Mesopotamia.
  • God revealed Himself to Moses in the wilderness by Mt. Sinai.
  • God delivered the people from Egypt.

The tabernacle was a representation of what true worship should look like. God was with His people wherever they might be; He was not tied down to a parcel of land or a place. In contrast, the temple was intended to be a house in Israel, a place for them to express their devotion and submission to God. Stephen points out that it had become not a house for worship but a house for God. A place where Israel attempted to imprison God and manipulate Him according to their desires and concerns. At this point in Israel’s history, the temple had become a symbol of Jewish exclusivism and a rallying point for nationalism. 

His point was ignored, and the nationalistic movement became so strong that it eventually led to the temple being destroyed in A.D. 70. The warnings issued by both Jesus and Stephen had been ignored.

Resisting the Holy Spirit – 51-53

In these verses, Stephen applies a classic rhetorical methodology where the speaker applies the lessons from the previous sections of his speech in a direct and often emotional appeal to the listeners in an attempt for them to act. In the case of Stephen’s speech, the purpose was not to “beat up” his Jewish audience; it was an attempt to move them to repentance.

  • He accused them of being “stiff-necked…, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.”
  • They were behaving like pagans.
  • They were always resisting the work of the Holy Spirit.
  • They resisted and, in some cases, killed the prophets who brought God’s messages.
  • The prophets they resisted were the ones who brought the message of the coming Messiah.
  • They were responsible for killing the Messiah.

The purpose of Stephen’s speech becomes more apparent. The historical presentation illustrated Israel’s continuous rejection of the leaders God appointed. 

  • Moses – rejected.
  • Stephen – rejected.
  • Prophets – rejected or killed.
  • Theoretically, it would seem that Israel had learned some painful lessons through their struggles over the years. Stephen points out that no lesson had been learned; they were still just as stubborn and rebellious as ever.
  • Jesus – killed.

It is quite possible that Stephen realized his trial was hopeless without him compromising the faith. Therefore, Stephen used this one last chance to share his beliefs in the hope that the religious leaders would finally repent and submit to the lordship of Jesus. Stephen’s speech was a defense. It was one final chance to share the truth of the Gospel message.

The First Christian martyr – verses 54-60.

The directness of Stephen’s speech in the preceding three verses set off the Sanhedrin. The terms “enraged” and “gnashed” in modern interpretation fall short of the depth of the emotions that fill the Sanhedrin. In their minds, the person on trial, Stephen, had attempted to flip the table and accuse them of acting against God. In addition, Stephen’s response in verse 56 infuriated the Sanhedrin even further. One point needs to be discussed regarding the term “standing” in verses 55 and 56.

  • Is it just a variation in expression instead of saying Jesus was seated at the right hand of God?
  • Does it represent Jesus rising from His seat to welcome the martyr?
  • Does it represent Jesus as the defense counsel, indicating that Stephen is innocent?
  • Is it a connection to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man stands before the Ancient of Days?
  • Does it represent Jesus in the role of the judge in the case?

Any or all of the options are possible.

The ramifications of the vision were not lost on the Sanhedrin. In the Sanhedrin’s mind, there were only two conclusions to the vision.

  • If it was true, they were condemned.
  • If it was false, Stephen was committing blasphemy.

The result is that mob-like action now occurred. The irony is that to complete their unholy actions, they took Stephen outside Jerusalem to preserve its sanctity, to execute the stoning. There is strong debate about whether Stephen was the victim of a “lynch mob” or a formal verdict from the Sanhedrin. 

  • Formal verdict.
    • Stephen was on trial before the Sanhedrin.
    • He was killed by stoning.
  • Lynch mob.
    • The Sanhedrin didn’t have the legal right to carry out executions during the Roman occupation; John 18:31.
    • The stoning didn’t fit the pattern of Jewish execution by stoning outlined in the Mishna.
      • Stoning was conducted outside the city.
      • The stoning was done by those who were witnesses against the condemned person.
    • A formal stoning followed specific procedures.
      • Victims were stripped.
      • They were pushed over a 10 to 12-foot cliff.
      • They were then rolled over on their chests.
      • The first witness would push as large a stone as they could over the cliff onto the condemned.
      • If the condemned survived the first stone, the second witness repeats the stoning. This would be repeated as long as necessary, but often the condemned didn’t survive the first stone.
    • The picture of Stephen’s stoning doesn’t fit this pattern.
      • Stephen wasn’t stripped.
      • The witnesses were partially stripped.
      • It is doubtful that Stephen could’ve knelt or offered prayers if a large stone fell on him from ten feet above.
      • The picture here is of an angry mob throwing any stones they could find at Stephen. 
      • Instead of his death being swift, it was likely a long, drawn-out, and horrifying experience. 

Stephen appears to follow the same pattern as Jesus as he faced death. His words “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” echo what Jesus prayed as He was on the cross. Those words are also part of an ancient Jewish prayer based on Psalm 31:5. Stephen then became the first Jewish martyr.

Finally, the next main character appears on the scene, Saul. We can only speculate whether Saul played an active role in the stoning or was an observer to the proceedings. 

Applications

  • Do we understand what true worship is and is not? The Sanhedrin tied it to a thing (temple) instead of a relationship. Christian worship is not confined to certain times of the week or a specific location. Worship is how we live our lives and how we shine the light of Jesus. When we make worship anything other than our relationship with God, we are engaging in some form of idolatry.
  • We should live in the power and control of the Holy Spirit. It is evident from chapter seven that Stephen was empowered and calmed by the Holy Spirit. This is in stark contrast with the actions of the Sanhedrin, who acted like an out-of-control mob and disregarded their own doctrinal instructions.
  • Some of us may be called to be a martyr. This is a sobering reality of being a Christian. In some locations, it may be a bigger reality than in others. Not only should we prepare ourselves for the possibility, but we should also pray for our brothers and sisters in those parts of the world; first, that their faith does not waver, and second, for their protection. 

Acts Lesson Fifteen

Acts Lesson Fifteen: Acts 7:17-43 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 2

17 “As the time was drawing near to fulfill the promise that God had made to Abraham, the people flourished and multiplied in Egypt 18 until a different king who did not know Joseph ruled over Egypt. 19 He dealt deceitfully with our race and oppressed our ancestors by making them leave their infants outside, so they wouldn’t survive. 20 At this time Moses was born, and he was beautiful in God’s sight. He was cared for in his father’s home three months, 21 and when he was left outside, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted and raised him as her own son. 22 So Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in his speech and actions. 

23 “As he was approaching the age of 40, he decided to visit his brothers, the Israelites. 24 When he saw one of them being mistreated, he came to his rescue and avenged the oppressed man by striking down the Egyptian. 25 He assumed his brothers would understand that God would give them deliverance through him, but they did not understand. 26 The next day he showed up while they were fighting and tried to reconcile them peacefully, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why are you mistreating each other?’ 

27 “But the one who was mistreating his neighbor pushed him away, saying: 

Who appointed you a ruler and a judge over us? 28 Do you want to kill me, the same way you killed the Egyptian yesterday?

29 “At this disclosure, Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he fathered two sons. 30 After 40 years had passed, an angel appeared to him in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight. As he was approaching to look at it, the voice of the Lord came: 32 I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. So Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look. 

33 “Then the Lord said to him: 

Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have observed the oppression of My people in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to rescue them. And now, come, I will send you to Egypt.

35 “This Moses, whom they rejected when they said, Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?—this one God sent as a ruler and a redeemer by means of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 This man led them out and performed wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness 40 years. 

Israel’s Rebellion against God

37 “This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your brothers. 38 He is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors. He received living oracles to give to us. 39 Our ancestors were unwilling to obey him, but pushed him away, and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron: 

Make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s happened to him.

41 They even made a calf in those days, offered sacrifice to the idol, and were celebrating what their hands had made. 42 Then God turned away and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets: 

House of Israel, did you bring Me offerings and sacrifices 

40 years in the wilderness? 

43 No, you took up the tent of Moloch 

and the star of your god Rephan, 

the images that you made to worship. 

So I will deport you beyond Babylon! (HCSB)

In this lesson, we’ll continue Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin, concentrating on Israel’s

initial rejection and acceptance of Moses as a deliver. Stephen’s discussion is broken into

three forty-year sections, covering the three major portions of Moses’ life.

  • Moses’ upbringing in Pharaoh’s house, verses 17-22.
  • The initial rejection of Moses and his life in Midian, verses 23-29.
  • God’s calling at the burning bush and the Exodus period, verses 30-43.

Just as Joseph bore similarities to Jesus, Moses also shares similarities.

  • He was persecuted and almost killed as a child.
    • Exodus 1:22.
    • Matthew 2:13-20.
  • He refused a life of comfort in order to save his people.
    • Hebrews 11:24-26.
    • Matthew 4:8-10.
  • He was rejected the first time he tried to save Israel.
    • Exodus 2:11-14.
    • Isaiah 53:3.
  • He became a shepherd.
    • Exodus 3:1.
    • John 10
  • He took a Gentile bride during his rejection.
    • Exodus 2:21.
    • The church, including Gentiles, being the bride of Christ.
  • He was accepted by his people the second time.
    • Exodus 4:29-31.
    • Acts 7:5.
  • He delivered his people from bondage through the blood of the lamb.
    • Exodus 12.
    • 1 Peter 2:24.
  • Moses was a:
    • Prophet – Deuteronomy 18:15-19.
    • A priest – Psalm 99:6.
    • A king – Deuteronomy 33:4-5.

Moses Early Life: Verses 17-22

Although Israel’s early time in Egypt was relatively easy and prosperous, the situation had changed radically by the time of Moses. Pharaoh became increasingly alarmed by the ever-increasing number of Israelites and was determined to limit their influence. Pharaoh also enslaved the Jews to perform manual labor in Egypt and committed infanticide to reduce their numbers. However, even as the Jews were being oppressed, God showed His favor in protecting and preparing Moses for his future role.

  • Moses was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her own son.
  • Moses was thoroughly trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians.
  • Extra-biblical historical records indicate that the best teachers were used to train Moses.
  • The reference to Moses being powerful in speech may come as a surprise since Moses told Yahweh that he lacked in eloquence. The passage is probably a reference to Moses’ writing ability, but there is no conclusive evidence supporting or denying that position.
  • Stephen’s point in listing these details to a story familiar with the Sanhedrin is that God can and has used non-Jews for His purposes.

The stage is now set for the second phase of Moses’ life. Israel was being oppressed, but God was faithful to His promises. A deliverer had been raised and trained for the role. God was walking with Moses.

The initial rejection of Moses and his life in Midian; verses 23-29.

There are two major themes presented in this section.

  • Israel’s rejection of its divinely appointed deliverer, Moses.
  • Moses’s time as a pilgrim away from his people.

There is a critical interpretative point that is missing in the translation from Greek to English. The issue is with the word “visit.” Luke uses it in both his gospel and here to indicate someone sent by God to oversee and care for His people. As God’s emissary, Moses went to look after his fellow Israelites and, upon seeing one of his brothers being abused by an Egyptian, he went to that man’s defense and ended up killing the Egyptian. It should be noted that the Old Testament account does not make a reference to Moses “avenging” the Israelites. Instead, this was Stephen’s interpretation of the event. In the role of God’s emissary, Moses applied divine vengeance to the offending Egyptian. Moses assumed the Israelites would see that he was a rescuer sent by God, but they didn’t interpret it that way.

The following day Moses attempted to mediate a dispute between two Israelites. The Old Testament makes no mention of Moses being a reconciler. Once again, this is Stephen’s interpretative account to emphasize Moses’ role as God’s representative. Verses 27b-28 are a direct quote from Exodus 2. Stephen’s point is that God made Moses the ruler and judge for Israel as His appointed leader.

Although Moses fled because of Pharaoh’s wrath, it was the knowledge among the Israelites that Moses had killed an Egyptian that alerted him to the danger that he faced and that his life was in the balance. This emphasizes that Moses’ flight was tightly connected to Israel’s rejection of him, putting his life in danger and forcing him to flee Egypt. Stephen once again stresses that God can’t be tied down to a single place or people.

God’s calling at the burning bush and the Exodus period: verses 30-43.

Verses 30-34

Stephen focuses on God’s revelation to Moses. Stephen has two main points in mind in these verses.

  • The revelation takes place outside the holy land.
    • Holy ground can be found anywhere, even far from the temple in Jerusalem. God is not tied to a location.
    • God reveals Himself as the God of the patriarchs.
    • Moses had fearful reverence for God.
  • God chose Moses as the deliverer for Israel.
    • God had promised to deliver Israel. 
    • God was faithful to His promise. Now, He had chosen the man to deliver them.

Verses 35-36

The relation between Moses and Jesus is now connected.

  • Moses.
    • God had chosen him as the means for deliverance.
    • Moses was the redeemer of Israel.
    • Moses performed signs and wonders in Egypt.
    • The people rejected him as God’s appointed deliverer, “Who appointed you a ruler and a judge?”
  • Jesus.
    • God the Father sent Jesus as the means to deliver Israel from the bondage of sin and death.
    • Jesus is the eternal redeemer.
    • Jesus performed signs and wonders and then empowered the apostles to continue that work.
    • Israel rejected Him as the divinely sent redeemer.

Verses 37-38

Moses was more than a foreshadowing of Jesus.

  • Moses prophesied the coming of Christ.
  • Moses was in the congregation, ekklesia, in the wilderness and gave the “living oracles” to Israel.
    • Ekklesia is the usual word for the assembly of Israel in the Septuagint.
    • It is also the term used by Christians for New Testament church assemblies.
    • Just as Jesus mediates for us with the Father, Moses was the mediator between Israel and the angel of God.
  • The “living oracles” (Law). 
    • This was given to Moses by the angels through the direction of God the Father. 
    • Christ would be the fulfillment of the living oracles.

Verses 39-41

Here Stephen highlights the apostasy that Israel committed in the wilderness, specifically the incident with the golden calf and the rejection of Moses as their deliverer.

  • The nation of Israel, in general, had pushed Moses away and rejected him as their deliverer.
  • They claimed they didn’t know what happened to Moses, and they showed no desire to discover his fate.
  • Their “hearts” turned back to their previous place of bondage, Egypt.
  • Instead of following the living God, they were determined to follow idols.
    • Rejecting God’s messenger is rejecting God.
    • The calf was described as an idol.
    • Idolatry is following the things made by human hands.
  • Stephen is now getting ready to tie the temple into the discussion.
    • In the wilderness, Israel, along with Aaron, the priest, had distorted the pure worship of God.
    • The temple in Stephen’s day was also guilty of distorting the pure worship of God.

Verses 42-43

This section tells how God handled the apostasy of Israel. The phrase “host of heaven” in the original Greek is not referring to angels. The reference here is to stars, suns, and moons. It literally means that the people can worship the sky and not the living God. Paul makes a similar reference in Romans 1:24-28. It is one of the most fearful judgments when God turns us over to our sinful desires and lets our rebellious nature lead us to ruin.

Stephen quotes from Amos 5:25-27 to show the idolatrous practices of Israel while they were in the wilderness. His point in quoting the passage from Amos is, “did you bring me sacrifices?” Israel made sacrifices in the desert to golden calves and heavenly bodies, but not to God. The wilderness days of Israel were days of apostasy, which ultimately resulted in exile. There is likely a veiled charge against the Sanhedrin that the same fate awaited them unless they turned from their rejection of Christ.

As we review Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin so far, three main themes are stressed.

  • God’s activity is not confined to the geographical land of Israel.
    • God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia and Haran.
    • He blessed Joseph in Egypt.
    • He spoke to Moses in the desert.
    • He performed signs and wonders in Egypt, the Red Sea, and the desert.
    • He gave Israel the Law at Mount Sinai.
  • Worship acceptable to God is not confined to the Jerusalem temple.
    • The burning bush was holy ground.
    • Moses encountered God at Mount Sinai and was giving “living oracles.”
    • The tabernacle was a suitable place of worship for the nation of Israel.
    • To suggest the suppression or destruction of the temple was not blasphemy because God was independent of any temple.
  • The Jews have constantly rejected God’s representatives.
    • The patriarchs rejected Joseph.
    • Moses was rejected when he tried to mediate a dispute between two Jews.
    • The message of Moses was rejected, and the Israelites made a golden calf.

Applications.

  • We need to remember that God is not confined to a location. No nation, church, or denomination has a monopoly on God. He is omnipresent and can use people across the globe to accomplish His purposes. God is just as likely to be active in a remote area as in a fancy church building. 
  • Don’t limit worship to 1 1/2 hours on a Sunday morning at a building. Our lives should be an example of worship. As we work, interact with others, or go about our business, we should do it in a worshipful manner, shining the light of Jesus to those around us. Being a follower of Jesus is a lifestyle, not a once-a-week event.
  • Be careful before rejecting the teaching or message of those involved in ministry. We should carefully examine it against what is contained in Scripture to make sure it isn’t false. If the religious leaders of Israel had done that, they would have discovered who Jesus was, and instead of rejecting Him, they would have followed Him. We need to have a spirit of discernment regarding those who preach and teach us. If it lines up with Scripture, follow it. If not, challenge them or find a new church.

Acts Lesson Fourteen

Acts Lesson Fourteen: 7:1-16 – Stephen’s Sermon Part 1

“Is this true?” the high priest asked. “Brothers and fathers,” he said, “listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran, and said to him: 

Get out of your country 

and away from your relatives, 

and come to the land 

that I will show you. 

“Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land you now live in. He didn’t give him an inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, but He promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless. God spoke in this way: 

His descendants would be strangers 

in a foreign country, 

and they would enslave 

and oppress them 400 years. 

I will judge the nation 

that they will serve as slaves, God said. 

After this, they will come out 

and worship Me in this place. 

Then He gave him the covenant of circumcision. After this, he fathered Isaac and circumcised  him on the eighth day; Isaac did the same with Jacob, and Jacob with the 12 patriarchs. “The patriarchs became jealous of Joseph and sold him into Egypt, but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his troubles. He gave him favor and wisdom in the sight of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who appointed him ruler over Egypt and over his whole household. 11 Then a famine and great suffering came over all of Egypt and Canaan, and our ancestors could find no food. 12 When Jacob heard there was grain in Egypt, he sent our ancestors the first time. 13 The second time, Joseph was revealed to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 Joseph then invited his father Jacob and all his relatives, 75 people in all, 15 and Jacob went down to Egypt. He and our ancestors died there, 16 were carried back to Shechem, and were placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem. (HCSB)

Although I would have preferred to cover Stephen’s sermon in one lesson, I felt that would be too long. Therefore, I’ll break it into a series of studies, most likely three, to cover the material in sufficient detail. In this lesson, we’ll cover the first part, from Abraham to the Patriarchs in Egypt.

This lesson is divided into two sections. The first covers verses 1-8, God’s covenant with Abraham, and the second covers verses 9-16, Israel’s rejection of Joseph.

God’s covenant with Abraham: God’s history with his people began with God’s call to Abraham to leave his country for an unknown destination.

Verse 1

The high priest follows the standard protocol for charges presented against a person before the Sanhedrin. The accused is allowed to respond to the charges. If effect, the high priest is asking, “Are these charges true?” “How do you plead, guilty or innocent?”

The speech follows, the longest of any address in Acts, appears on the surface to be unrelated to the charges that were brought against Stephen. However, as we work our way through it, we’ll see that the charges were subtly addressed and redirected toward those accusing him. Stephen was skillfully leading the Sanhedrin, preparing them for a more direct denouncement in the final part of his speech. His speech contains two main themes.

  • God can never be tied down to one land or place, and, hence, His people are closest to Him when they are a “pilgrim people,” a people on the move to accomplish His will.
    • Throughout the Old Testament days, the nation of Israel never disassociated God’s blessing from His gift and call to a specific piece of land.
    • Stephen directly challenges this notion, illustrating that God’s blessings often occurred outside the promised land.
    • God can meet His people anywhere, and each of those locations should be viewed as holy ground.
  • Israel had a historical pattern of constantly resisting and rejecting the leaders God appointed. In this lesson, the leader they will reject is Joseph. This theme will be the stake through the heart of Stephen’s speech as he accuses the religious leaders of God’s chosen people of rejecting the very one they should be anticipating. The fulfillment of Israel’s true worship is the Messiah, and in rejecting Him, they were rejecting what ultimately the temple was all about.

Verses 2-8

The first thing to note about Stephen’s defense is that he shows great respect to the Sanhedrin, calling them his brothers and fathers. Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin, which takes up almost all but a few verses in chapter seven, begins and ends with the phrase “God of glory” or “God’s glory.” If we remember back to the end of chapter six, we’ll recall that Stephen’s face shone like an angel, most likely in some way an expression of God’s glory. Scripture tells us and reminds us throughout that Israel is God’s chosen people, and as such, they were privileged to have that glory as part of their inheritance.

Romans 9:4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises.

However, through Old Testament history, we know that little by little, God’s glory had departed from the nation of Israel.

  • First, from the tabernacle. 1 Samuel 4:19-22 Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant and about to give birth. When she heard the news about the capture of God’s ark and the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband, she collapsed and gave birth because her labor pains came on her. 20 As she was dying, the women taking care of her said, “Don’t be afraid. You’ve given birth to a son!” But she did not respond or pay attention. 21 She named the boy Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel,”  referring to the capture of the ark of God and to the deaths of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 “The glory has departed from Israel,” she said, “because the ark of God has been captured.”
  • Second, from the temple. Ezekiel 10:4, 18  Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherub to the threshold of the temple.  The temple was filled with the cloud,  and the court was filled with the brightness of the Lord’s glory… Then the glory of the Lord moved away from the threshold of the temple  and stood above the cherubim.

But now, God’s glory had returned in the form of Jesus, but the nation of Israel had once again rejected their God.

John 1:14 The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The glory of God had appeared to Abraham, telling him to leave his home and move to Canaan. Although Stephen quotes Genesis 12:1 in verse three of this passage, the preceding verse references Genesis 15:7. This subtle connection indicates that God was in control of Abraham’s movements from the very beginning. It was no coincidence that the family had first moved to Haran and then again to Canaan.

God appeared to Abraham before he ever saw the promised land. But Abraham never had an inheritance there. The promised land was never his land; it was for his descendants. The key theme is the promise of God. The Jews, and many Christians, have always understood God as the God of promise who never fails to deliver. For us, the promised land is heaven. For Abraham is could only mean a geographical location. However, Stephen makes a point that the geographical location is not the ultimate evidence of God’s blessing by the use of the phrase “not even a foot of ground.” Stephen’s point is that Abraham had no possession in the promised land, yet God was with him the entire journey. The promise of an inheritance to Abraham’s descendants was a promise in its fullest sense since at the time it was given to him, Abraham had neither land nor an heir to possess the land.

Verses 6-7 provide the pattern for the fulfillment of God’s promise, combining Genesis 15:13-14 and Exodus 3:12. Abraham’s descendants would be sojourners in a foreign land, Egypt. They would be enslaved and mistreated for about 400 years. They would eventually be delivered by another leader chosen by God and through the judgment of God on leaders of Egypt. After their deliverance, Israel would worship God “in this place.” These verses illustrate the promise-fulfillment pattern for the entire historical picture that Stephen is painting. God repeatedly renews His promise despite the constant failure of the people in rejecting their leaders over and over. The temple should have been the fulfillment of the promised goal to “worship Me in this place.” However, the real goal of God’s promise to Abraham was not the land; it was the freedom to worship and devote themselves to God. But we know that even the temple was not able to fulfill the promise. The promise is only fulfilled in Jesus. 

Verse eight is a quick transition point. It indicates the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and progresses through a brief history of the patriarchs. The covenant of circumcision implies the birth of children, and the circumcision of Isaac confirms that God kept His promise of providing descendants to Abraham. The stage is now set for the next step in Stephen’s promise-fulfillment narrative, the story of Joseph.

Rejection of Joseph: Though Stephen never mentioned the Lord’s name, the parallel between Joseph and Jesus would likely surface in the minds of Stephen’s listeners. Both were loved by their fathers; both were sent to a foreign land; both brought blessing to the people, and both were restored to positions of glory at the end of their trials.

Verses 9-10

Before digging into this section of the passage, let’s look at the ways that Joseph resembled Christ.

  • He was loved by his father.
    • Genesis 37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph was a son born to him in his old age, and he made a robe of many colors for him.
    • Matthew 3:17 And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!
  • He was hated by his brethren.
    • Genesis 37:4-8 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not bring themselves to speak peaceably to him. Then Joseph had a dream. When he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: There we were, binding sheaves of grain in the field. Suddenly my sheaf stood up, and your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” “Are you really going to reign over us?” his brothers asked him. “Are you really going to rule us?” So they hated him even more because of his dream and what he had said. 
    • John 15:25 But this happened so that the statement written in their scripture might be fulfilled: They hated Me for no reason.
  • He was envied by his brethren.
    • Genesis 37:11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
    • Mark 15:10  For he knew it was because of envy that the chief priests had handed Him over.
  • He was sold for the price of a slave.
    • Genesis 37:28  When Midianite traders passed by, his brothers pulled Joseph out of the pit and sold him for 20 pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took Joseph to Egypt.
    • Matthew 26:15  and said, “What are you willing to give me if I hand Him over to you?” So they weighed out 30 pieces of silver for him.
  • He was humbled as a servant.
    • Genesis 39:1-2  Now Joseph had been taken to Egypt. An Egyptian named Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh and the captain of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, serving in the household of his Egyptian master. 
    • Philippians 2:7a  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.
  • He was falsely accused.
    • Genesis 39:16-18  She put Joseph’s garment beside her until his master came home. 17 Then she told him the same story: “The Hebrew slave you brought to us came to make a fool of me, 18 but when I screamed for help, he left his garment with me and ran outside.”
    • Matthew 26:59-60  The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false testimony against Jesus so they could put Him to death. 60 But they could not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. Finally, two who came forward 61 stated, “This man said, ‘I can demolish God’s sanctuary and rebuild it in three days.’ ”
  • He was exalted to honor.
    • Genesis 41:38-40  Then Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone like this, a man who has God’s spirit  in him?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as intelligent and wise as you are. 40 You will be over my house, and all my people will obey your commands. Only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.”
    • Philippians 2:9-11  For this reason God highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — of those who are in heaven  and on earth and under the earth — 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
  • He was not recognized by his brethren the first time.
    • Genesis 42:8  Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.
    • Acts 3:17  “And now, brothers, I know that you did it in ignorance, just as your leaders also did.
  • He revealed himself to them the second time.
    • Genesis 45:1  Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers.
    • Zechariah 12:10   “Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David and the residents of Jerusalem, and they will look at Me whom they pierced. They will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for Him as one weeps for a firstborn.
  • While rejected by his brethren, he took a Gentile bride.
    • Genesis 41:45  Pharaoh gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah and gave him a wife, Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest at On. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt. 
    • Acts 15:6-11  Then the apostles and the elders assembled to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them: “Brothers, you are aware that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the gospel message and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them by giving the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why are you testing God by putting a yoke on the disciples’ necks that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus in the same way they are.”

Stephen’s point is that the Jews treated Christ in the same way that the patriarchs treated Joseph. Just as Joseph suffered to save his people, Christ also suffered to save Israel and Gentiles; yet the Jews rejected Him.

Israel’s rejection of delivers.

  • Joseph.
    • His brothers rejected him the first time and sold him into slavery.
    • The brothers recognized him the second time when they returned to Egypt for more food.
  • Moses.
    • Israel rejected him the first time he tried to deliver Israel from bondage.
    • When Moses came a second time, Israel accepted him, and he led them on a journey of deliverance.
  • Jesus.
    • Israel rejected their Messiah when He came the first time.
    • When Jesus comes a second time, Israel will recognize and receive Him.

Verse 11

God was not on the side of the jealous brothers, as famine and great suffering came over them. This verse serves as a bridge between what had transpired regarding Joseph and the circumstances surrounding the rest of the family.

Verse 12-13

There are two main points in these two verses.

  • Judgment.
    • God was passing judgment on the land, which also included Joseph’s family.
    • However, this judgment was not final. Joseph was the instrument that God used to deliver them.
    • Although this point is not explicit in Stephen’s oratory, the Sanhedrin would be intimately familiar with the details surrounding those events.
  • Initial blindness, secondary sight.
    • Joseph’s brothers would only recognize him on their second visit.
    • Moses was initially rejected but followed the second time.
    • Israel rejected Jesus when He revealed Himself. Now, Stephen was “revealing” their Messiah a second time in the hope that some would recognize and follow their deliverer.

A secondary point to consider in these two verses is that both the deliverance by Joseph and Moses occurred outside the promised land. The special acts of deliverance that Stephen spoke about all occurred outside of the borders of Israel. God can, and has, worked out His master plan of salvation in Gentile territory, clearly demonstrating that He is willing to impact and include all people in redemption. The Sanhedrin were trying to keep God in a little box, while Stephen was clearly telling them that God was much bigger than their understanding.

Verses 14-16

This section of Stephen’s speech ends with reference to the migration of Jacob’s clan into Egypt and the burial of patriarchs at Shechem. Although Jacob was buried at Hebron, Joseph was buried at Shechem. Stephen’s use of Joseph’s burial site was meant to send a subtle signal to his judges. Shechem was also located outside the “holy land.” Even more stinging is that it was located in the territory of their despised neighbors, the Samaritans. 

A summary of this section shows that God delivered Israel from famine and brought them in peace to Egypt by the hand of Joseph. God was faithful to His promises. However, the stage was set for the second part of the act, Moses. With a new king coming to Egypt, the cycle of oppression, rejection, and deliverance would happen again.

Applications

  • The activity of God is not confined to a specific location. In the event of this passage, the location is the land of Israel. God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia and blessed Joseph in Egypt. We need to remember that today. God can choose to display His power in any location. Another point for the New Testament church is that a building (church building) has no special significance. WE are the church. We should never try and constrict or bottle up God.
  • Worship can occur anywhere. The burning bush was holy ground, as was Mt. Sinai and the tabernacle. Too many Christians think of worship as the Sunday morning service. That is thinking too small. Our lives, Monday through Sunday, should be our worship time. Our lives are meant as a living sacrifice of worship to an infinitely holy God.
  • As followers of Christ, we should continually attempt to “reveal” Jesus to a lost and dying world. As a result, we may meet continual rejection. When that happens, we should never be discouraged. Scripture shows that rejection is not unusual but rather to be expected. However, we should never give up sharing the life-changing and life-saving message of Jesus.

Acts Lesson Thirteen

Acts Lesson Thirteen: 6:8-15 – Stephen’s Witness

Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 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.

Verse 8

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.

Verse 9

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.

Verse 10

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.

Verse 11

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.

Verse 12

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.

Verses 13-14

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.

Verse 15

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.

Applications.

  • 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.

Acts Lesson Twelve

Acts 6:1-7  Chosen for Service

In those days, as the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint by the Hellenistic Jews against the Hebraic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. Then the Twelve summoned the whole company of the disciples and said, “It would not be right for us to give up preaching about God to handle financial matters. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the preaching ministry.” The proposal pleased the whole company. So they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte from Antioch. They had them stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 

So the preaching about God flourished, the number of the disciples in Jerusalem multiplied greatly, and a large group of priests became obedient to the faith. (HCSB)

Before we look at this short passage in detail, it will be helpful to try and determine a timeline for the events that have taken place so far in Acts. There are various interpretations and positions on when these events took place, and it is impossible to know the dates exactly. However, a reasonable estimate is that the events that occurred at the beginning of chapter six took place anywhere from two to five years after Pentecost. This indicates is that the church had been in existence for a period of time now, was continuing to grow, and was starting to exhibit growing pains as the number of believers increased. Still, the leadership team, or at least the organizational structure, had not changed. We now see the church adapting and growing to meet the needs of the people.

Verse 1

The first thing to note in this verse is that the church was experiencing rapid growth. The Greek used here is plethyno. The Greek-English Lexicon defines it as: to increase greatly in number or extent—‘to grow, to increase greatly, to multiply. Whatever the number of believers was at this point, we can only estimate what that would be; the church had experienced significant growth. As with any organization, growth presents both opportunities and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is organizational structure. A similar situation occurs in Exodus, with Moses trying to administer to the entire nation of Israel as they travel to the promised land. Moses’ father-in-law advised him to set up a hierarchy to meet the needs of the people effectively. Although the circumstances surrounding the events here in chapter six are not on the same scale, they do represent a situation where more structure and workers are needed.

The second thing to note is there was a danger of a division occurring within the church. 

  • Hellenistic Jews were the Greek-speaking Jews who had moved to Palestine from other countries in the region. They may have spoken Aramaic as a second language, but it is reasonable to believe that many didn’t speak Aramaic. 
  • Hebraic Jews were the people who grew up in Israel and spoke both Aramaic and Greek. 

A few points to remember as we read this verse.

  • The Hellenistic Jews could be viewed as the “outsiders” in the young community of believers.
  • Those that were being overlooked were the “outsiders.”
  • The vast majority of believers were likely Jews. The exceptions would be the proselytes, Gentiles who converted to Judaism such as Nicolaus, but they were few in number as the mission to the Gentiles had not begun yet. The church could be viewed as a Jewish Christian community.
  • As with any large group, it is easy for “cliques” to develop. In this case, it is highly probable that Hellenistic Jews tended to meet with others from their cultural group, while the Hebraic Jews met with others from their group. This doesn’t mean there was disunity in the church, only the separation that is normal due to language and cultural differences.
  • This separation now became evident in how the charity was being practiced within the community. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in this. It is possible that there were a significant number of Hellenistic widows, as is alluded to in 1 Timothy 5.
  • There were two types of charity practiced by the Jews, and the early church probably followed the same practices.
    • Guppah – this was a weekly allowance for needy residents. It was given out every Friday and consisted of enough money to buy fourteen meals.
    • Tamhuy – this was a daily distribution for nonresidents and transient people. It consisted of food and drink delivered house-to-house where the needy were known to dwell.
    • It seems that the early church combined elements of both practices with a daily distribution to those in need.
  • From Acts 2:44f and 4:32f, it is apparent that the early church firmly believed that there should be no needy people in the family of Christ.

The Apostles were presented with a challenge to the unity of the church. How would they react to this potential threat?

Verse 2

They acted promptly to address the unintended slight to the Hellenistic Jewish community. They also understand that they had dropped the ball on this and needed to take responsibility to correct the situation.

A few points to note here.

  • The entire group of Apostles, all twelve, convened a meeting of all the believers. 
  • They wanted the entire community of believers to be aware of the situation and be involved in the solution to the problem. 
    • This would remove any perception of disunity or discrimination between the two groups of believers. They were equal in the eyes of the church’s leadership.
    • The voice of every believer was important in the decision the church would make regarding the situation.
  • The Apostles were not sending the message that taking care of the needy was beneath them. They were sending a very clear message that this was an essential part of ministry, but as leaders of the church, they were responsible for teaching and shepherding the flock.

Verses 3-4

The first question that begs to be asked is, “why seven men?” Here a historical/cultural review reveals that there’s nothing mysterious about this number. Jewish courts typically consisted of seven members. The early church was following what an accepted cultural practice was. The same reason applies for choosing only men; this would be the standard cultural practice. 

Next, the Apostles outline the requirements for those that would serve the community.

  • They needed to have a good reputation. This would be important for both serving those in the community as well as demonstrating a faithful witness to those outside the community.
  • They needed to be full of the Spirit. Being filled and led by the Holy Spirit was an integral component of the early church, especially those in leadership. The Spirit would need to work in and through them to carry out the ministry the Apostles were expecting of them.
  • They needed to be full of wisdom. Wisdom is essential when administering funds and ensuring that financial matters are handled above reproach.

Just as choosing the Apostles was a pivotal moment, choosing these seven men would also be a key moment. If mistakes were made in choosing one or more of them, it could potentially seriously harm the members of the church as well as tarnish their high standing within the local community. This could have given a timely opportunity for Satan to damage the church from within. However, this didn’t occur.

The result of appointing seven men to carry out this ministry function would enable the Apostles to continue concentrating on their primary task; evangelism, teaching, and shepherding the church.

Verse 5

There are two important points in this verse. 

  • First, the proposal from the Apostles to the congregation was pleasing to the “whole” company. It wasn’t a majority decision; it was a unanimous decision to support the proposal.
  • Second, the congregation chose the seven who would serve. Although the Apostles set out the requirements to fill the function, it was the members who would make the decision on who would fill them.

We could speculate as to why the seven men were all Hellenistic Christians, but there is nothing significant to be gained by that discussion. It could be as simple as the problem involved the Hellenistic widows, the Hellenistic Christians wanted to serve them, and the Hebraic Christians saw no reason not to let them serve in this manner.

Although we have some further information on several of the men chosen, others are never mentioned again.

  • Stephen – being listed first is really not a surprise as he will be the primary character in chapters six through eight.
  • Philip – he would also play a significant role in the story of the expanding Christian witness as outlined in Acts 8:5-40.
  • Prochorus – early tradition connects him with the Apostle John. In particular, it is thought that he was the writer who took dictation from John when the fourth Gospel was written. He later became the bishop of Nicomedia in Bithynia and was martyred in Antioch.
  • Nicanor/Timon/Parmenas – nothing further is known about these men.
  • Nicolaus – some scholars believe he may have been Luke’s primary source of information about the Hellenists, especially what is noted in Acts 11:19-21. It is also likely that the Gnostic sect known as the Nicolaitans borrowed his name to gain authority for their teaching. However, there is no evidence that Nicolaus himself had any connection to them.

Verse 6

The selection of the men to fulfill the responsibilities outlined earlier in the passage is now followed by a simple installation ceremony. The men were brought before the Apostles, who prayed over them and laid hands on them. This simple act signified that the Apostles confirmed the selections made by the congregation. 

The question begs to be asked as to whether the practice of laying on of hands is a prescriptive or descriptive practice for the church? The idea of a commissioning ceremony with the laying on of hands goes back to Old Testament practices in Exodus 18:13-27 (without laying on of hands) and Numbers 27:16-23 (with laying on of hands). Therefore, from a cultural standpoint, it was an accepted practice. Additionally, Luke uses the practice of laying on of hands to illustrate different concepts in the book of Acts.

  • 9:17 – healing.
  • 8:18 – giving of the Holy Spirit.
  • 13:3 – commissioning to a task.

The overwhelming emphasis is on the designation for a task and not for an appointment to an office.

Another issue that crops up with this passage is the assumption that this is the first designation of the office of deacon within the church. However, that is an incorrect understanding of the passage. The Greek word used in verse one (daily distribution) and verse four (preaching ministry) is diakonia. The proper understanding of this word in verse two is, “a procedure for taking care of the needs of people—‘provision for taking care of, arrangement for support.” In verse four, the meaning is “the role or position of serving—‘ministry, task.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the action, serving, and not an office. The Greek word for a deacon, diakonos, never occurs in this passage. However, it does occur in Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:8, where deacons are explicitly discussed. Therefore, we should not understand this section of the passage as the inauguration of the office of deacon within the church. We should understand it as the selection of seven men to function as faithful servants for the needs of the church, which would free the Apostles to continue their responsibility as teachers and shepherds to the young church.

Verse 7

Luke continues the good news in verse seven. 

  • First, the Apostles could concentrate on evangelism, and the Gospel message was spreading because of their efforts. 
  • Second, the church continued to multiply in Jerusalem. The Greek word used for multiply is the same one that was used in 6:1. The was continuing to experience exciting growth.
  • Third, a large group of priests became followers of Jesus. Some clarification is needed on this point.
    • We should identify these “priests” with the members of the Sanhedrin from Acts 4:1.
    • Priests served in rotational “teams” throughout the year.
    • The service included all the tasks that were required to be completed, not just the function of the Sanhedrin and the high priests family.
    • At this particular point in history, it is estimated that there were as many as 8,000 priests and 10,000 Levites who were involved in temple functions.
    • The majority of these men were considerably poorer and likely practiced sincere piety and devotion to God.
    • The message of a risen Messiah would have attracted them.
    • We don’t have an estimate of how many priests became followers, but it would appear to be a significant number since Luke mentions it here.

As we review this passage, lets’ consider some characteristics that identified the early church.

  • They were able to synthesize the matters of spiritual and material concerns. It was not just an evangelism center; it was a congregation that recognized the genuine needs of its members and designed and implemented practical, biblical plans to take care of these needs.
  • They were flexible in being able to adjust their organizational structure to meet the needs. The modern church often can be inflexible in meeting needs if the structure doesn’t have a plan to address the need. In the New Testament church, structure only developed to meet needs.
  • They practiced positive attitudes of restraint. In this case, they didn’t place blame on anyone for the Hellenistic widows being overlooked. Also, the Apostles didn’t demonstrate autocratic leadership in the search for a solution.

Applications

  • Are the needs of everyone in your local body of Christ being met? If not, bring up your concern to leadership to address the issue. If you are in a leadership position, take action on the  problem.
  • Don’t point fingers when problems arise. Instead, work with a spirit of unity and humility to find a solution to the problems. Also, don’t seek after glory in the search for a solution. Only God deserves the glory.
  • Decisions within a church or ministry organization should be corporate in nature. Autocracy has no place in a biblical church. If you see that happening in your church, challenge those in charge with a humble but uncompromising spirit.
  • Regardless of our gifting or role in our church, we are all called to serve one another. Don’t be a consumer Christian, be a participating and serving Christian.