(Series: “The Early Church of Jerusalem” post #13)
I take no pleasure in reporting that much of what a lot of Christians believe about God really doesn’t stand up to the test of scripture. “God wouldn’t let me remain sick.” Tell that to Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:19). “God wouldn’t let me be poor.” Tell that to the Christians of Smyrna (Revelation 2:9). “God wouldn’t let Satan have his way with me for years.” Tell that to the woman who remained stooped over for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-17). “God wouldn’t let me lose a child.” Tell that to David (2 Samuel 12:15-23) and Job (Job 1:18-19). “God wouldn’t let me be physically harmed for serving Him.” Tell that to Abel (Genesis 4:1-8) and John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12).
This brings us to the story of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. We first meet him in Acts 6:1-7 as he is chosen to be one of the seven men assigned the responsibility of the Jerusalem church’s daily distribution to its widows. Really, if that was the man’s sole claim to fame it would be enough to classify him as a tremendous servant of the Lord. But Stephen’s resume doesn’t stop there.
In Acts 6:8, we’re told that he was “full of faith and power” (N.K.J.V.) and that he did “great wonders and signs among the people” (N.K.J.V.). That means that the indwelling Holy Spirit had gifted him with the spiritual gift of the working of miracles (1 Corinthians 12:29). In addition to this, Stephen was also a great Christian debater. Acts 6:10 says that a group of unbelieving intellectuals “were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (N.K.J.V.).
However, as happens so many times with outstanding servants of the Lord, Satan aimed his sights at Stephen. He did so by leading that group of unbelieving intellectuals, who were embarrassed because they couldn’t discredit Stephen in a fair debate, to secretly provoke certain men to accuse Stephen of blasphemy against God and Jewish law (Acts 6:11-12). This led to Stephen being seized and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council that served as the Supreme Court of all things Jewish (Acts 6:12).
Not surprisingly, the corruption that had previously marked Jesus’ trial before these same men also marked Stephen’s. As had been done to Jesus (Matthew 26:37-61), false witnesses were employed to say that Stephen had spoken blasphemous words against the law and the Jewish temple (Acts 6:13). These false witnesses even used the same quote from Jesus that had been used against Him in His trial:
“for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:14, N.K.J.V.)
This set the stage for Stephen’s defense of himself, which amounted to a retelling of Israel’s history beginning with God’s call to Abraham and ending with Solomon building the Jewish temple, which was the pinnacle of that history (Acts 7:1-50). Following this defense, Stephen held nothing back in offering his assessment of those members of the Sanhedrin. He said:
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53, N.K.J.V.)
Stiff-necked? Uncircumcised (at least in heart and ears)? People who always resisted the Holy Spirit? Descendants of persecutors of prophets? Murderers of the Messiah of whom those prophets had foretold? People who didn’t keep the Mosaic law? Wow! Tell us what you really think of the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen. No Jewish person, and I mean NO Jewish person, dared talk to those men like that.
Therefore, it’s not a bit surprising that those men flew into a blind rage and “gnashed at him with their teeth” (N.K.J.V.). In other words, they ground their teeth together. It was at this point that Stephen looked up and was granted the privilege of being able to literally see into heaven. There he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father (Acts 7:55). Was Jesus standing in honor of Stephen’s courage or was He standing to receive Stephen’s soon-to-be disembodied soul into heaven? I like to think it was both.
Stephen exclaimed, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56, N.K.J.V.). Evidently that vision of heaven was for Stephen’s eyes only because the members of the Sanhedrin couldn’t see it. Their response to Stephen’s exclamation was to cry out loudly, put their hands over their ears so they didn’t have to listen to him anymore, and rush toward him (Acts 7:57).
Once they had laid their hands upon him, they unceremoniously bum rushed him out of Jerusalem, picked up stones, and stoned him to death (Acts 7:58). With his dying words Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59) and, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). Those statements were virtually identical to two statements Jesus had made while hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34, N.K.J.V.) and “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46, N.K.J.V.) And with that the church had its first martyr.
Even though death by stoning was the Mosaic law’s sentence for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), the fact was that the Israel of Stephen’s day was no longer a nation in and of itself. It was merely one little slice of the vast Roman empire. As such the Jewish Sanhedrin could not officially put anyone to death. They had to get Rome’s permission for that. This, of course, was why they had been forced to get Pontius Pilate on board regarding the death of Jesus.
So why did the members of the Sanhedrin stone Stephen without first asking permission from the Romans? Well, does the term “mob violence” mean anything to you? You see, Stephen’s death wasn’t the result of the Sanhedrin working in an official capacity through official channels. It was, instead, a gang of angry men who were royally ticked off at what Stephen had said about them. If Acts chapter 7 was part of an old Western movie, Stephen’s death would have been a lynching rather than a stoning.
No doubt the illegal nature of the death only made the shockwaves from it even greater. Even though this wasn’t the first time the Jerusalem church had experienced persecution, the persecution had never resulted in death. For example, Peter and John had been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, but the two apostles had gotten off unscathed (Acts 4:22). All twelve of the apostles had later been arrested by a group of Sadducees and thrown into prison, but an angel had opened the prison doors and led them to freedom (Acts 5:17-21). Those apostles had been rearrested shortly afterward and brought again before the Sanhedrin, but that trial had resulted in them merely being beaten and commanded not to speak in the name of Jesus (Acts 5:22-42).
It was Stephen’s death that took the persecution against the church to a whole new level. Now the gloves were off. The last verse of Acts chapter 7 closes with Stephen dying, and the first verse of Acts chapter 8 says that at that time “a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem” (N.K.J.V.). Don’t miss the connection between those two happenings.
But would you believe that God would use the heightened level of persecution against the Jerusalem church to accomplish not one but two things necessary in order for the early church as a whole to go a new and more prolific level? In my next post I’ll identify what those two things were. So until then I’ll ask you to stay tuned. And in the meantime just know that even when God either causes or allows a “bad” thing to happen, He always has a multilayered plan to bring tremendous good out of it. We just have to be patient until we can see the full unfolding of that plan.