How are we to live in liminal moments? As I write this, our world is in the throes of the coronavirus. As we saw in the previous post, the early church experienced a liminal moment of their own, the threat of punishment and persecution from the powerful religious leaders in the city of Jerusalem. How did they choose to respond? That is what the story of Acts chapters 6 and 7 are about, a guy named Stephen and the horrible way it turned out.
Take a look at the description of Stephen in Acts 6, verses 8-10. There are four qualities that the author uses to describe Stephen. In verse 8 we read about the first two. Stephen was full of God’s grace and power. As a result he did great wonders and miraculous signs. In verse 10 we read about the second two qualities, his wisdom and that the Spirit was speaking through him.
Let’s take a deeper look at the first two qualities mentioned in verse 8: he was full of God’s grace and power. It seems these two are connected. Earlier in Acts 4:33 we read a very similar description of the apostles, that “much grace was upon them all.” The word “grace” in Greek is “charis,” which refers to favor. “Much favor was upon them all,” and it was a favorable disposition from God to them. God was graciously empowering them, and he does the same with Stephen. It is very interesting that this empowerment happens after the apostles commission Stephen, along with the other six deacons, which we read in Acts 6:6. What the apostles were doing, performing miraculous signs and wonders favorably empowered by God, now Stephen is also doing!
You might think that this incredible ministry, which likely included the spectacle of healing and exorcism, would have been applauded and accepted by huge crowds. I suspect it was. We don’t hear about that though. Instead look at verse 9, which describes opposition to Stephen. Remember the larger context I talked about in the previous post? Remember the liminality the church was living in? The in-between time?
Here is where we tie in what we already learned about Stephen being a Greek-speaker. It seems that Stephen was especially focusing on ministry to the Jews in Jerusalem who were also Greek-speakers. How do we know this? Because in verse 9 the Synagogue of the Freedman, is mentioned. The author describes it a bit, listing four places where Jews, who were members of the Synagogue of the freedman, came from: Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia, all Greek-speaking places in that day. So Greek-speaking Jews gathered together at this synagogue. There would have been many such synagogues in Jerusalem, likely forming around language groups. Why is it called the Synagogue of the Freedmen? There is speculation that this synagogue was for Greek-speaking Jews who had been freed from slavery throughout the Roman Empire and had come to relocate in Jerusalem. Because of Stephen’s Greek-language focus, of course he is going to minister to the Greek-speaking Jews in the city.
But it doesn’t go well. Why? Stephen not only ministers through the gracious power of the God, but he also preaches the words of the Gospel. This goes to the second group of qualities of Stephen listed in verse 10: his wisdom, and that he spoke by the Spirit. The Jews, like the religious leaders had done with the apostles, disagreed with Stephen’s Gospel message, opposing him. But we read that they could not stand up to him, meaning that he was able to best them in a discussion about the truth. Imagine how this angered them. Read what happens in verses 11-15.
The Grecian Jews opposing Stephen create falsely testimony about him. They seize him and bring him before the Sanhedrin (which was the top Jewish ruling body). Again, the big ominous threat rears its ugly head. Another leader of the church is brought before the powerful ruling authorities. There they proclaim more false testimony against Stephen.
Now look at chapter 7, verse 1, where the high priest asks Stephen if the charges are true. Stephen launches into a sermon reviewing the history of Israel, which is bold of him considering that Stephen is speaking to the people in the nation who would have known their history best. Did the Sanhedrin feel that they were being lectured by a peon? I would think those religious leaders were boiling inside, hating sitting there listening to Stephen tell them what they already knew. Think about how Stephen is responding to his liminal moment. Not running away. Not giving in. But trusting in God, obeying God, and with a heart to be the church, proclaiming the amazing story of hope that there is in Jesus.
Let me summarize the sermon, which runs from verses 2 through 53. Stephen reviews the history of Israel from Abraham, to Moses and the Exodus, all the way through to Joshua, David and Solomon, who built the temple. But then he makes a turn in verse 48 saying that God does not live in houses. He quotes Isaiah 66:1-2 to support this. But why? Why does he bring this up about the temple?
It could very well be that Stephen is now moving his argument toward Jesus. The religious leaders were stuck on the centrality of the temple, which was the central image of the Old Testament religion, and Stephen is about to say that the temple is no longer the center. What he says is so interesting: maybe the temple was never supposed to be seen as so central, which is what the passage in Isaiah 66 refers to.
Luke records that Stephen only quotes verses 1-2 of Isaiah 66, but that’s all he needed to quote. Everyone there would have been quite familiar with Isaiah 66, and the verses that follow 1-2. Read Isaiah 66:1-4 so you can see what the next few verses say, verses that Stephen was bringing to mind just by quoting the first two.
What we read in Isaiah 66 is a prophecy of judgment from the Lord against people who were thinking wrongly about the temple. In 1 Kings 8:27 when King Solomon dedicated the first temple, he said, “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” Solomon knew. Isaiah knew. And Stephen knew. Together they all bring an accusation against the religious leaders who crucified the Messiah. The religious leaders who Stephen was preaching to also knew that when he used this passage from Isaiah, he was indicting them for being fraudulent, leading the people astray. Again, do you see how Stephen is choosing to live in his liminal moment? With courage, trusting in God.
Then in verses 51-52 he gets really accusatory. He says that those religious leaders are just like their fathers, that they resist the Holy Spirit, and that, just as their fathers killed the prophets, even the ones who predicted the coming of the Messiah, those whom Stephen was speaking to killed the Messiah Jesus.
Those words in verse 51 are bold, aren’t they? Stephen is not holding anything back now, even when he is on trial. What can we learn from this? I don’t recommend that you share the Gospel by attacking people verbally. I don’t know why Stephen goes this route. Maybe it was a culturally appropriate way that Jews spoke, but I doubt it based on the reaction of the leaders, which we’ll see in just a moment. John the Baptist and Jesus would sometimes talk with that kind of bold accusation too, and they, too, weren’t well-received by the leadership. So I have to doubt that Stephen was thinking, “I know what I’ll do. I’ll confront them. A strong accusation will win these guys over.” Instead Stephen seems upset and even angry. To call a Jew uncircumcised is a big punch in the gut, and he is saying to the leaders that their hearts and ears are uncircumcised, meaning that they might as well be pagans. In other words, he is telling them, “You guys are rebellious against God and you are false!” I don’t see any other way around this, except that Stephen is blasting them. And why? Did he not want to win them over? I don’t know. Maybe he has had it with them, maybe he lets his emotion get the best of him, maybe he was at the point where he has been falsely accused and he is done with them. Essentially, like Isaiah, he is proclaiming and prophetic word of judgment over them. Maybe all he is doing is speaking truth to power.
Verse 53 is odd as well, but it fits with Stephen’s flow of thought. These powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem stand in line with the many Jewish leaders before them who, through years, were the keepers, receivers and teachers of the Mosaic Law, which Stephen says was put into effect through angels. Angels? What is Stephen talking about? If you look back into his sermon, in verse 38 you’ll see that there, too, he mentions an angel involved in the giving of the law. Interestingly, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) doesn’t mention the idea of angelic involvement in the giving of the Law. It was a Jewish tradition that Stephen was aware of.
Why does he bring up the Law at all? His point is that the leaders have not obeyed the Law. Stephen has just unloaded strong accusation on those religious leaders. We can learn from his boldness, his trust in God and his determination to speak truth in the middle of a liminal moment. As he speaks truth to power, how will the leaders react? Thus far, they haven’t received his teaching at all. Will they now? Will Stephen’s sermon cause them to repent and turn to Jesus? More on that in the next post.