In Acts chapter 6, the spotlight focuses on a man named Stephen. Stephen is new to the scene in Acts. We don’t see anything about him in the gospels, or in the first five chapters of Acts. But now, from chapters 6-7, he becomes the main character.
The book of Acts is filled with heroes of faith being persecuted falsely, giving long sermons, and giving the glory to God. Stephen is among them, and the first of them to be martyred, but sadly not the last.
Stephen is introduced as a leader in the church who steps in to help minister to the wildly multiplying church. His job description is basically to wait on tables and minister to the needs of the church members, but it is clear that he is far more than a table setter. He is filled with the Holy Spirit in powerful ways, and becomes famous as a debater and teacher of doctrine, wiser (by the Spirit) than all who argue with him.
Of course, this leads to his death, because just as with Jesus and the other disciples, when the thugs and tyrants in the temple meet someone they can’t intimidate, shut down, or win an argument with, they resort to violence.
This is a remarkable theme in the Bible, stretching all the way back to Cain and Abel. Abel had a relationship with God, and Cain did not. Rather than humble himself and pursue God the way his brother did, Cain decided to simply kill off the competition. It was true of the prophets, and it was true of Jesus.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
He knows they will do the same to him, and he knows they will do it to his disciples in the future as well. It isn’t some feel-good statement to make them feel better. It is a promise to give them hope when they are being stoned to death. If you have never been persecuted, or faced the fear of direct, life-changing intimidation, then this verse means very little to you. If you are facing a life-altering choice of whom to serve, then this verse comes at you with the full force of the Son of God himself, and it motivates, empowers, and encourages you when you have no courage.
Back to Stephen.
After establishing himself as a humble, Spirit-filled leader of the early church, a gang of religious leaders conspired together to stop him by force. They used “false witnesses,” a very common phrase in the Bible, probably best known as one of the Ten Commandments, as in “Do not bear false witness,” a very clear command. These religious Jews figured it was ok to break one of the commands as long as they did it to shut Stephen down.
Of course, it didn’t, but that is because Stephen was not acting of his own accord. He was filled with the Holy Spirit, the power of God himself, and God does not simply turn off when a few punk liars show up. God deals with the father of punk liars everyday, and is not intimidated in the least by him.
Stephen, standing in front of a kangaroo court of thugs, liars, murderers, and mobsters, has absolutely no fear whatsoever, but rather, is filled with the presence of God so fully that his face glows, pointing all Bible scholars back to Moses and of Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration. The religious leaders would not have known about the Transfiguration of Jesus, but they certainly knew about Moses. Especially since it was they that had brought Moses into the discussion in the first place.
They secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
We will study Stephen in more detail in a later blog post, because the sermon he unleashes on this Sanhedrin of gangsters is one of the most remarkable in scripture, and fits very well within the context of Acts, with bold sermons from Peter at the beginning, Paul at the end and Stephen here in chapters 6-7.