Commentary on Acts 6:8-15
Today we begin the story of Stephen, who will be the first person to give his life for Christ. He is the first martyr, the first true witness to the Gospel. The passage follows immediately on yesterday’s reading on the appointment of the ‘deacons’, of whom Stephen was one and also following the conversion of some of the Temple’s priests.
We are told at the beginning that Stephen, “filled with grace and power”, was performing great signs and wonders among the people. Until now, we only heard of the apostles, especially Peter and John, working miracles. Now, after the laying on of hands, Stephen is given the same gifts and the same power. Soon, we will see the deacon Philip doing the same.
However, Stephen’s words and action aroused the displeasure of other Greek-speaking Jews. We are told that there were people from the Synagogue of Freedmen, who were probably descendants of Jews who had been carried off to Rome by Pompey when he attacked Jerusalem in 63 BC. They would have been sold into slavery but later released, hence their name. The Cyrenians came from Cyrene, which was the chief city in Libya and North Africa, half way between Alexandria and Carthage. It had a Jewish community. (We remember too that it was a Simon from Cyrene who was forced to help Jesus carry his cross, Matt 27:32.) Alexandrians, came from the city of Alexandria (named after the famous Macedonian emperor). It was the capital of Egypt and the second city of the Roman Empire. It also had a Jewish community. Cilicia was a Roman province in the southeast corner of Asia Minor, close to Syria. Tarsus, the birthplace of Paul, was one of its principal towns. Asia simply referred to just one Roman province in what is now western Turkey. Its capital was Ephesus, which would feature prominently in Paul’s ministry.
These men began debating with Stephen. It is an interesting theory that, since Paul was from Tarsus in Cilicia, he might have attended this synagogue and have been among those who were arguing with Stephen. He certainly was prominent in the stoning of Stephen.
The parallels between his experience and that of his Lord are strikingly similar. Like Jesus and because of Jesus he is “filled with grace and power” and he “worked great wonders and signs among the people”. He arouses the displeasure especially of his fellow Hellenist Jews who cannot deal with the Spirit-inspired power of his words.
As they could not better Stephen in debate, they began circulating distorted versions of what he was saying. They accused him of saying that the worship of God was no longer to be restricted to the Temple. The charges that Stephen depreciated the importance of the temple and the Mosaic Law and elevated Jesus to a stature above Moses were in fact true. And, as far as the Sanhedrin was concerned, no defence against them was possible. But the false witnesses that some Hellenists were bringing forward were actually distorting what Stephen was saying.
So they begin to throw false accusations against him leading to his incurring the hostility both of the people and the Jewish religious leaders. In the presence of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, they distort his words by claiming that Stephen claimed Jesus was going to destroy the temple and change the traditions of Moses.
In a sense, of course, it was true. The coming of Jesus made the Temple irrelevant and the teaching of Jesus would not abolish but would transcend and go far beyond the traditions of Moses.
All of this is very similar to the experience that Jesus went through. All through this, his enemies glared at him with hostility while Stephen’s face seemed like “that of an angel”. The face of an angel produces a feeling of awe. There are echoes here of the face of Moses as he came down from the mountain after being face to face with God and the appearance of Jesus at the Transfiguration. Here, too, the Sanhedrin members are witnessing a transfiguration, as Stephen has a vision of Jesus in glory. (This will occur in tomorrow’s reading.) And, whatever their feelings towards him, he had no hostile feelings towards them. This is the spirit of Jesus. “Love your enemies.”
With Stephen, who thus perceived the fuller implications of the teachings of Jesus, the difference between Judaism and Christianity began to appear. Luke’s account of Stephen’s martyrdom and its aftermath shows how the major impetus behind the Christian movement passed from Jerusalem, where the temple and law prevailed, to Antioch in Syria, where these influences were less pressing.
As Christians, we too can expect and should not be surprised to experience hostility and misunderstandings even from our fellow-Christians at times. We are called too to return love for hatred, peace for anger. An attitude which is a real stumbling block to some and utter nonsense to others.
We will see the rest of the story tomorrow.