Over the last few months I have been studying the Acts of the Apostles. I thought it might be helpful if I were to pick out the most important things I learned from each day’s study. To make it less daunting, I’m going to do this over the course of the next week.
Acts 6: 1 – 7 The choosing of the seven
The distribution of food to widows had become contentious. Worse, there were factions within the body of believers. “The Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.” The apostles were being distracted from what they saw as their primary task of prayer and the ministry of the word.
In short, human sinfulness was starting to disrupt the work of God.
To solve the problem, the Twelve proposed to the disciples that they should choose men to be responsible for food distribution. The only qualification needed was to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. The disciples chose seven, and the Twelve prayed and laid hands on them. Problem solved.
Actually, I wonder whether it was.
It’s a pragmatic solution to a human problem, and it’s a solution that has had consequences. The church became split into an ordained, spiritual leadership focussed on prayer and the ministry of the word, administrators who deal with the daily running of activities like food distribution, and the body of believers. We still have that structure today.
Acts 6: 8 – 15 Stephen seized
The early church still identified itself as Jewish. The disciples spent many hours worshipping in the temple. Peter and the apostles taught and healed in Solomon’s Colonnade, in the temple. The early church looked at the Jewish Law and Prophets and saw Jesus as the Messiah, the one who fulfilled what was written there. And their message was getting through. “The numbers of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6: 7)
The established leadership of the Israelites saw this as a threat. They failed to defeat Stephen in debate, so they made out he was a law-breaker, and had him seized and dragged before the Sanhedrin. The charge was revealing. “…we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
Temple worship would disappear. The customs handed down from Moses would be changed. These were the things that gave the chief priests and teachers of the law their power, status and wealth. They weren’t going to let that happen without a fight. The infant church was about to face the might of the established religion.
Please inspire your church today to pray for your Holy Spirit to be poured out on us, so that we may be true to your vision of the kingdom of heaven, and not trapped by custom and self-interest.
In Jesus’ name, Amen
Acts 7: 1 – 16 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 1
To summarise the first part of Stephen’s defence, he’s establishing the common ground between what he’s been preaching, and what the Jewish scriptures say.
What lessons can we learn from this passage?
I think for me the main lesson is to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Different circumstances call for different responses. Stephen was charged with the same offence as Jesus. Jesus remained silent; Stephen was prompted to speak eloquently. Both responses were right; they were what was needed by God.
How do we know what the Holy Spirit is saying? We pray. We consider scripture. We repent so that we can hear God speak. We consciously place ourselves in God’s hands – and in doing so we are only doing what God wants for us. For what could be better than to be in the hands of Jesus?
Thank you for loving all humanity. Thank you for loving me. Please make me ever more alert to the prompting of your Holy Spirit, and ever more obedient.
In Jesus’ name, Amen
Acts 7: 17 – 29 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 2
Stephen reminds the Sanhedrin that when Moses tried to intercede between two Israelites who were fighting, he was rejected with the words, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?”
Stephen is making the point that the Israelites, despite their loud protestations of faith in Moses as prophet and Law-giver, actually rejected him when he first took up their cause. Every member of the Sanhedrin would have understood that Stephen was telling them that they had rejected Jesus just as their ancestors had rejected Moses.
Let’s not be like the Sanhedrin, antagonistic and feeling threatened. Let’s be like Stephen, full of faith. Let’s welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives with joy!
Acts 7: 30 – 43 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 3
In today’s passage, the emphasis of Stephen’s speech changes; the focus moves from showing the orthodoxy of his preaching to an indictment of the Israelites. At present, he confines the indictment to the Israelites of Moses’ day, but the direction in which he is moving is clear.
Despite Moses’ anointing by God, despite the signs and wonders, the Israelites returned to idol worship.
This must have made uncomfortable listening for the Sanhedrin. They couldn’t argue with Stephen about the actions of the Israelites – it’s all there in their scriptures (Exodus 32: 1 – 35). Neither was Stephen a member of their elite; how dare he stand there lecturing them as though they were schoolboys!
And yet, if they had listened with hearts that were open to the truth, they could have heard the message that God was calling them to a higher service than that of Moses. What a missed opportunity!
Acts 7: 44 – 60, 8: 1 Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin – Part 4
What Stephen meant here is that the temple is unnecessary. It hasn’t always existed, and it isn’t essential because God is everywhere – and can thus be worshipped anywhere.
The temple was central to the worship of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Every adult male was supposed to go there for the major festivals, and many did. At Passover, for instance, tens of thousands would flock to Jerusalem and the temple. And they brought sacrifices and offerings. This was where the wealth and power of the chief priests and teachers of the law came from. Custom, reinforced by self-interest made the abandonment of temple worship unthinkable for the Sanhedrin.
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
For a mere mortal to claim to see God was intolerable. It outraged everything the members of the Sanhedrin had been taught, every value they had lived by.
“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
How revealing. They covered their ears. They yelled at the top of their voices. This is what children do when they don’t want to hear something. The members of the Sanhedrin didn’t want to hear the message of Jesus, they didn’t want to be obedient. They wanted their own way.
I find this scene quite appalling. These men, leaders of the nation, wealthy, powerful, and learned were transformed into a murderous mob. And that the transformation was triggered by a desperate urge to reject the message of Jesus is absolutely chilling.
Stephen, as he was being stoned, commits his spirit to Jesus, and he forgives the men who are murdering him.
We shall see later that God did indeed forgive that sin, for, “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” We meet that young man again.