The fulcrum of Acts’ cycle turns midchapter, as the explosion of growth in conversions began to affect even the inner sanctum of the temple mount itself. We read in Acts chapter 6 that “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” That must have rocked the Sanhedrin to its core!
Stephen, one of the foreign-born Hellenistic Christians, was on fire, and on a roll, as powerful and persuasive as any of the original disciples. Luke described him as “full of grace and power” and doing “great wonders and signs among the people.” Anywhere you looked in Jerusalem, if there was a crowd gathering, chances are that was Stephen, preaching and teaching, with God authenticating his message by signs and wonders.
Now, look carefully at the kind of people who began to join these crowds to strenuously contend with him—Luke wrote they “stood up and argued,” and later plotted Stephen’s arrest.
Do you see it?
Though Jerusalem had the temple (the only place where Jews could bring their sacrifices) there were still lots of synagogues: the Greek stem simply means “to gather together.” The Synagogue of the Freedmen may have been Jews whose families had once been slaves or prisoners of Rome, and had later settled in Jerusalem after being freed. Synagogue members were from North Africa (Cyrene and Alexandria are in Libya and Egypt, respectively) and modern-day Turkey (Cilicia and Asia). They, too, were foreign-born Hellenists.
There is one person, in particular, though, who will occupy most of the rest of Acts, whose hometown was located in Cilicia.
So, here is the cycle’s swing, prayer over the seven Hellenistic deacons, powerful increase in church membership, then opposition through the persecution of Stephen. The whole drama focused into a typical day when Stephen was teaching yet another rapt and growing audience. Suddenly, scribes and elders who had been stirred up by lies and slander (coming from the Synagogue of the Freedmen plotters), began pouring through the massive temple gates, down the grand stairway and out onto the plaza, where they abruptly seized Stephen and hauled him back up the stairs, back through the gates, and into the private chambers of the Sanhedrin council for trial.
Picture the scene. They accused him of speaking against Moses, the greatest of God’s prophets.
“We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God!”
Then, they dusted off the false accusations that had gotten Jesus crucified.
“This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”
All eyes swiveled to glare at Stephen. With horror, they saw his face now radiating with supernatural light, purity, and power. Immediately, and ironically, it drew to mind the scripture’s record of how Moses’ face had glowed with the reflected glory of God, the Lord’s Shekinah, whenever he had spoken face to face with the Lord of Hosts.
Then, with his face still shining, Stephen began his message. The charges against him were truths mixed with lies, so he began his defense by pointing out the great heroes of their faith. Abraham was a man of life-long faith who changed his whole life in order to obey God. Joseph was a man of faith who obeyed God regardless of his circumstances, even when his own family betrayed him.
Stephen spent most of his time talking about Moses, because his accusers had charged him with speaking out against Moses. Both Moses and Joseph had been rejected as deliverers, but they had persevered. The people rejected God, but God also persevered with them. Moses told the people to watch and wait for the prophet God would one day raise up for them.
But what did God’s people really do?
Stephen accused the Sanhedrin of three things:
- They were resisting the Holy Spirit as they had always done.
- They were persecuting and killing the prophets, including The Messiah Himself, as they had always done.
- They were breaking the law of Moses, as they had always done.
The Sanhedrin was condemning Stephen for blaspheming against the law of Moses, but Stephen’s response was that God’s condemnation and judgment was on them for breaking the law of Moses and rejecting the truth about God’s Son.
It was not to be borne. “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.” So overcome with a sense of righteous rage and virtuous fury! Here, clearly, was a case of blasphemy and heresy all rolled into one, a foreign Jew daring to come here and preach religion to them, the holy anointed judges and spiritual guardians of all Israel. A Hellenist having the brazen arrogance to tutor them in Judaism. And worst, to fling Jesus in their faces, that ragged itinerant street preacher.
It simply was not to be borne. As Stephen gazed into the realm of heaven, and began to describe the glory of God, and of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, Jesus perhaps raising His hand to receive Stephen, the temple elite frothed to a frenzy, surged forward and stoned Stephen.
It was only the beginning of an extended and horrendous time of persecution soon to be led by a young man named Saul, native of Cilicia, hailing from Tarsus, in fact, a fervent Pharisee and champion of God.
Again, carefully note what happens: “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Why? Why did the false witnesses, with their trumped-up lies, leave their things with Saul as they joined in the stoning? Add together Acts 6:9-14 with Acts 7:58-8:1 and you have the whole story. Saul was most likely one of the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen, his family having been granted Roman citizenship in Tarsus (a fact Paul would regularly return to throughout his life). When Saul’s family sent their brilliant young gifted and talented son to Jerusalem, to study under the famous Gamaliel, they surely contacted their extended connections through the Synagogue of the Freedmen to secure a safe place for him to stay.
This fiery young phenom may have even led the delegation that “stood up and argued” with Stephen. His pride injured, and his sense of self-righteousness bruised at the unexpected failure of his arguments (I imagine Saul was not used to being outsmarted in a debate), the evidence supports Saul being the instigator of the secret plot to bring Stephen down.
And Saul “approved of their killing Stephen.”
Here was Saul, chief persecutor exulting over the demise of Stephen, faithful martyr.
But who really had reason to celebrate?
Every trouble that it is met in the power of the Holy Spirit will result in spiritual victory.
Stephen, who had been steadily growing into the spiritual gifts given him by the Spirit of Christ, reached the apex of his spiritual maturity in those last moments, when the overlap of physical and spiritual realms became visible and real to him. He saw the glory of God, he was even reflecting the very Shekinah of Lord Most High, and he was personally received by Jesus.
It was his worst ordeal, his final ordeal, yet also his best, most glorious earthly moment. I think, for me, this lesson means determining to see adversity and ordeals as opportunities to see the spiritual realm more clearly, and to expect God’s glory to be revealed in that moment, even in me. Growth is not the goal, it’s simply the side-effect.
The goal is to incarnate Jesus, reveal Jesus, and to become ever closer to Jesus. This is life’s finest victory.
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