Introduction: I am so in awe of Luke as a writer! He is like a wonderful playwright–carrying us along building anticipation for what comes next. He includes many crucial details that help smooth the way for the entrance of other key figures in the story. Acts 6-8 serves the purpose of laying ground work for the introduction of a key player in the Gospel Story–the Apostle Paul.
Study help: Most of the NIV Bibles contain a set of maps in the back. A helpful resource for you would be to flip there when Luke mentions a place name. The map to look at is entitled “Map 12: Apostles’ Early Travels”
Q: What was the impact of so many coming so quickly to faith in Christ? How did the leadership handle the surge of growth? What problems arose?
A: Think about what happened when we opened a second site at Charter Colony. The members at the East site began to sense that their interests were being neglected–that too many resources were being applied to the “new” site. They made their case known to the leaders of the church. Look for that dynamic in the issue that Luke records in Acts 6:1-7 between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews.
Acts 6:1-7 Deacons are Appointed
- Jerusalem had a minority of Hellenistic Jews.
- spoke no Hebrew because they had lived abroad for centuries.
- returned to the holy city of Jerusalem to live out their last days in the land God gave Abraham. This is similar to modern day Jews who sometimes return to Israel to live after being in other countries all their lives–compelled by a passion to worship where their ancestors worshipped.
- as a result, there were an abundance of Greek speaking Jewish women who had outlived their husbands.
- One of the religious duties expected of Jewish people was that they care for widows and orphans–this tradition was an expectation in both groups–and by the way continued in Christianity.
- Native Hebraic Jews, those who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic were resentful of these foreign upstarts and treated them like second class citizens.
- When thousands were converted to faith in Christ, that threw two groups together who basically resented each other–that presented a challenge as they followed a Lord who asked His followers to love each other!
- Greek speaking widows felt neglected by the Hebraic leadership and raised a complaint
Q: Will this new faith only talk about loving each other or are we going to be people who walk the talk? Can I bring my old prejudices and bias attitudes into the new life in Christ? What will the Holy Spirit guide and empower me to do in this circumstance?
A: The apostles, who were Hebraic Jews, set a masterful model that answered this challenging problem.
- without defensiveness or possessiveness, they relinquished leadership responsibility to Greek speaking believers.
- they established that class and ethnic distinctions were not going to be allowed to create barriers in the family of Christ.
- they established that they understood the difference that Holy Spirit makes in a life–they were committed to living in trusting dependence on God’s Spirit not their own natural abilities.
- they established that being full of the Spirit was the key qualification for the work they were called to carry out with Christ.
Key Point: A division in the early church was averted by following the the Spirit’s guide to yield authority not grasp it. In the process God raised up a mighty man of God from the Greek speaking believers named Stephen.
Acts 6:8-15 Stephen Seized for Blasphemy
Luke makes a word portrait of Stephen — he desribes what he is “full of”
- full of faith(vs. 4)
- full of the Spirit (vs. 4)
- full of wisdom (vs. 4)
- full of God’s grace (vs8)
- full of the same power Christ displayed (vs8)
- full of God’s reflected glory–radiant face (vs. 15)
Luke highlights what was lacking in the audience gathered in the Synagogue of the Freedmen.
- they lacked the ability to “stand up against his wisdom”
- lacked the eyes to see that Stephen was being commended by the God they professed to worship
- resorted to working through false charges against Stephen
Acts 7: 1-53 Stephen’s Case for the Truth of Christ
Q: Are the charges against Stephen true? Is he a blasphemer against Moses and God?
A: Stephen answers with a sermon with carefully selected events from the history of the Jewish people–each one building to one central point that Stephen wanted them to see. Stephen’s hope was that the Jews would be enlightened and realize, “It is not Stephen but we who are the ones blaspheming against Moses and God!”
(vs.2-8) Point #1 – You worship this land of Palestine and believe that real estate gives you special privilege with God.
- God blessed Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia and his people when they were slaves in Egypt–He is not a regional God. Wherever God is –that is Holy Ground
- God cared for His people as they travelled for 40 years in desert–outside the Holy Land.
(vs. 9-36) Point #2 – God has been faithful in sending people to lead and deliver His people — the people have been consistent in jealously rejecting them.
- Joseph was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers
- Moses was raised up to be a deliverer but the people did not realize he had come to rescue them.
- The people rebelled and returned to idol worship and wanted to return to slavery rather than be delivered while Moses was receiving the 10 commandments.
(vs. 37-43) Point #3 – You pretend to venerate Moses by upholding the law–why are you not listening to his words that told you to look for another prophet?
- God has been clear that our hope for redemption is not through law keeping but through another prophet–deliverer.
- Our record is one of rejection not obedience to God
(vs. 44-50) Point #4 – You think God is with you because you have a Temple Building–why do you not remember the words of the prophets?
- God is a God who does not dwell in buildings but who is present in the midst of His people.
- He has been with His people in Egypt, in the desert in a tent we called the Tabernacle moving from place to place.
- The prophets are clear, “God does not live in houses made by men” (Isaiah 66:1)
- Neither Tabernacle or Temple is necessary for the true worship of God
- Are we guilty of thinking that our land –America–is somehow more blessed by God than other places? Do we assume that these comforts and blessings have come to us because God prefers America?
- Do we make a fetish of what we do and don’t do (the law) more than what we believe about Christ in our heart?
- Do we suppose that because we show up weekly at a building that we are worshipping God in the way that pleases Him?
(vs. 51-53) Stephen’s conclusion:
- You are repeating the pattern of our forefathers–you are resisting the gift of God–the Holy Spirit.
- You are resisting the gift of grace and substituting a religion of self effort
- You refuse to humbly bow before the Almighty–you want to continue keeping your pride of holding your neck stiff and upright.
- You have persecuted and killed the “Righteous One.” Stephen pushed the envelope here by calling Jesus by a name reserved for God. He is saying, “You pretend to worship God but really you have murdered Him.”
- The obedience you are so proud of is actually disobedience.
(Acts 7:54-8:1) The Stoning of Stephen
- Stephen’s sermon sealed his fate–the Sanhedrin did not hear truth but felt justified in stoning Stephen for blasphemy.
- Luke describes this scene with words that establish that while Stpehen was rejected by men–he was commended and welcomed by His Lord.
- He contrasts the demeanor of those who hated Stephen with his peaceful walk into martyrdom.
- This was Luke’s way of answering the question, “Are these charges true?” Jesus appeared to Stephen as confirmation that his words were true and could be trusted.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose.
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I will never; no never; no never forsake!
(words from “How Firm a Foundation”)
- Stephen experienced profound dying grace as he faced this horrible violent death with peace, calm, and joy at seeing the face of Jesus who stood to receive him into His Presence.
- He proved that the Spirit of Christ was dwelling within him–he was more delighted to see His Lord than he was fearful of anything that was happening to him on earth.
- The last moments of his life were spent pointing others to Christ and His glory–it is what we are made to do each day of our lives!
- Saul the Pharisee was standing near by to make sure that the stoning measured up to the Deuteronomic code for stoning a blasphemer–he approved of this killing.
- Saul witnessed Stephen’s faith, he heard his prayer that was Christ like and forgiving.
- Luke uses this event to introduce another main character onto the stage of church history. Saul was the man who would be transformed by the Holy Spirit and who would come to love Jesus as much as Stephen did!
Key Point: God proved that He is able to make evil His servant–this martyrdom of Stephen touched off a huge persecution of the followers of Christ. They fled Jerusalem and took the gospel of Jesus to Samaria and beyond. In other words, the persecution was God’s tool to get the disciples to move on in their Acts 1:8 task.