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Acts 6:8-8:3 is a lengthy section that revolves around the arrest, testimony, and execution of Stephen. Stephen was one of the seven deacons appointed to serve food to widows in the church. But his ministry takes a sudden and drastic turn when he starts winning too many public debates with a group from a local synagogue. Some deceitful reporting leads to his arrest by the Sanhedrin, and suddenly a man who had been appointed to wait tables among the poor is suddenly brought in to testify before the elders of his people.
This is a pivotal moment in the book of Acts, where the Jerusalem church faces its strongest and most dangerous opposition yet, and many of the believers who had chosen to gather together back in chapter 2 are forced to scatter abroad. On the one hand, it's a tragedy to see a gifted and passionate man have his life snuffed out so prematurely while only trying to do good. On the other hand, this event catalyzes the church to move forward with their God-given mission to spread his message into all the earth. And, chapter 8 introduces us to a significant new character - Saul - who will become a lightning-rod figure in the growth of the Christian faith.
Acts 6:8-15 | The Arrest
- It is interesting that miraculous signs and displays are so standard for the church at this point that Stephen's own apparently miracle working gets almost glossed over in one line, 6:8.
- The Synagogue of the Freedman is composed of Jewish expatriates from various parts of the Mediterranean, specifically North Africa and Anatolia. When these men are unable to dissuade Stephen from preaching about Jesus by arguing with him, they instead turn to deception and scheming.
- It is interesting that the false accusations brought against Stephen in verses 13 and 14 likely have an inkling of truth in them: if Stephen is picking up on some of Jesus' own preaching, then it is possible that he is repeating some of the warnings Jesus gave about the eventual destruction of the Jerusalem temple (see Matt 24, Mark 13, Luke 21).
Acts 7:1-53 | Stephen's Sermon
- This sermon is quite long, and a significant portion of it is just Stephen retelling the story of Israel from the Hebrew Bible.
- While a significant majority of Stephen's speech is just summarizing the narrative events of Genesis (from Abraham onward) and Exodus, his point seems to be to use Moses as an example of how the people of Israel have always had a hard time listening to the prophets God sent to them.
- 7:39-43 is interesting in the way it jumps from the Exodus story to the book of Amos (5:25-27). Stephen is seeing a continuous pattern of rebellion against God from the time of Israel's incident with the Golden Calf at Sinai to the time leading up to the Babylonian exile. What Stephen says in verse 42 especially drives home an important Biblical theme: the Wrath of God being expressed in God handing over the people to the destructive things they want to pursue anyway. God turns away from his people because of their sin and, in so doing, effectively hands them over to the influence of other gods that they wanted to worship. This eventually led to a downward spiral of destructive choices that culminated in the Babylonian captivity. And the Babylonian exile had, in a symbolic sense, continued beyond the fall of Babylon, with the Persians, Greeks, and now the Romans. In a sense, continual resistance to God's leadership has led the nation to their present troubles!
- Verses 44 to 53 seem to be where Stephen starts to say things that will get him into trouble. The Sanhedrin knows about the stories of Israel's rebellion in the past, and their punishment in the form of the exile. These are familiar to them. What is not expected is what Stephen does in 7:44-53 - use the scripture itself to question the necessity of the Jerusalem temple existing at all. This will, of course, confirm in some ways the accusations they fabricated against Stephen initially.
- Back in 2 Samuel 7, king David had wanted to build a permanent dwelling place for God, since God had previously met them in the movable Tabernacle tent that had travelled through the wilderness. While David's human perspective said "wouldn't it be nice to give God a solid, sturdy house?" God's own perspective - as expressed through the prophet Nathan - was that he had never needed a house. In fact, God in 2 Samuel 7 seems to prefer living in a movable tent, a mobile home. And while in 1st Chronicles 28 David claims that God explained his rationale for choosing Solomon over him to build the temple, the words of the prophet Isaiah quoted by Stephen seem to indicate that God doesn't see any need for humans to build him a house. In fact, even in Solomon's prayer to dedicate the first Temple in 1 Kings 8, there is an explicit concession that he knows God doesn't really live there.
- Here is what Solomon said in prayer about the temple he had just finished building: "27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!28 Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day.29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place.30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive." (1 Kings 8:27-30 NIV)
- So when Stephen brings up the quote from Isaiah 66, and mentions the confusion between David and Solomon about who would build the temple, he seems to be arguing that the people are assigning too much importance to the temple structure and the religious institution around it, to the point that they are ignoring God and failing to see what he is doing right in front of them.
Acts 7:54-8:3 | Death and Scattering
- Having reached the climax of his sermon, where he lays blame on the leaders of the people for having Jesus killed, Stephen has pushed the Sanhedrin beyond their limits. They lash out in anger, drag him into the streets, and begin to execute him.
- In 7:56, Stephen sees a vision from heaven that matches the scene described in Daniel 7 - the formerly mysterious Son of Man figure from the prophecy, who sits at the right hand of God and receives God's power and authority over the world, is now clearly revealed to be none other than Jesus himself. But this appeal to the Hebrew scriptures falls on blocked ears.
- A young Pharisee named Saul arrives on the scene. He watches people's belongings as they take off outer coats and possibly personal bags in order to go throw rocks at Stephen. And he approves of this execution. But Saul is about to become one of the most pivotal figures in both this story and in human history.
- Stephen dies in a way that reminds us of how Jesus died: pleading with God to be merciful to the very people killing him.
- This tragedy understandably frightens the church, and more persecution breaks out against them. Saul goes into people's homes in order to drag them off to prison. Interestingly, Saul is willing to imprison both men and women. This is an odd thing to see in a culture that was largely male-dominated in terms of leadership, and only makes sense if certain women were also noticeably occupying leadership roles within the church. (See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture, pg. 71)
The outburst of persecution against the church causes them to flee from Jerusalem and into the immediately surrounding areas of greater Judea and northern Samaria. But this is not only a tragedy. It also catalyzes the activity of the church into multi-ethnic, international mission work, and precipitates the eventual spread of the Gospel message all over the empire, even to its heart in Rome.