Persecution of the Church
So far in his record, Luke has focused his attention on Peter the Apostle's ministry and persecution at the hands of the Jewish leaders. Beginning in this chapter, Luke brings the church and its inner workings to the foreground. Let us look at our outline to see what point we have reached in our study.
- Peter's First Sermon – Acts 1:1-2:47
- Peter's Post Pentecost Ministry – Acts 3:1-4:37
- Persecution of Peter and the Apostles – Acts 5:1-42
- Persecution of the Church - Acts 6:1-7:60
Luke will now describe people and events that were part of the first congregation of the church in Jerusalem.
The Choosing of the Seven – Acts 6:1-7
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food.
- Acts 6:1
It seems that after they were set free from confinement by the religious leaders, the Apostles continued their work in Jerusalem where it is estimated that the church grew to about 25,000 people. We read previously that certain members sold their land and donated the proceeds to the church, and here we see that some of this money was used to provide food for poor widows. I have done a quick count and in my congregation of about 400 people we have 25 widows. Using this ratio, a congregation of 25,000 would have some 1,500 widows. Apparently this distribution and care was taking place on a daily basis which would have been an expensive and time consuming ministry.
The Hellenistic Jews were not Greek converts to Judaism, they were Jews who were born outside of Israel. Note that Luke refers to the Jews born in Israel as "native" Hebrews in order to make the distinction between these two groups. We do not know why the widows of the Hellenistic Jews were being neglected, perhaps the rapid growth of the church caused some to be overlooked, perhaps the Hellenistic Jews were sensitive to the fact that all the church leaders (Apostles) were native Hebrews and any difference in the treatment of their people was seized upon. Luke does not comment on the legitimacy of their complaint, only that things finally came to a head because their concern reached the ears of the Apostles.
So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.
- Acts 6:2
It seems that the Apostles themselves were actively involved in caring for the widows at this point and conclude that this task was crowding out their more important work as leaders and teachers in the church. Even today, elders and preachers often find themselves overloaded with tasks not connected with their primary work of teaching, preaching and ministering the Word to the flock. Luke states that this problem moved them to begin delegating some of the benevolent tasks that they had been doing, and thus a ministry structure was put into place in the young church.
3Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." 5The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch. 6And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
- Acts 6:3-6
Luke carefully lays out the process that they followed:
- The Apostles established the qualifications for those to be chosen. To begin with, they specified that men only were to be considered for this role (the term used referred to males and not people in general). They could have established a precedent here for females to serve as deacons but they chose not to. They were to choose seven men because the Apostles determined that seven men would be required to do this job properly. These needed to be spiritually mature men (full of the Spirit) and ones who possessed wisdom (they knew how to apply or use the knowledge they had). Many times, we choose a person who is a good carpenter or bookkeeper in seeking men to serve as deacons thinking that job skill or training are the primary qualities this brother should have. Note that Peter only names spirituality and wisdom as the things to look for in a potential deacon.
- The Apostles instructed the church to select the candidates for deacons. The church had to choose men who were both spiritual and wise to be considered for the role of deacon (a Greek word meaning waiter, servant or minister).
- The Apostles would then authorize the individuals selected and vetted by the congregation to serve. This they did by prayer and the laying on of their hands in order to commend these men into their ministry as deacons.
The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.
- Acts 6:7
The Apostles returned to their essential work of prayer and teaching. We see the results of this renewed effort as Luke records the continued growth of the church. Luke also mentions that the gospel was impacting the higher levels of society and religion as a good number of priests were turning to Christ as well.
Persecution Begins – Acts 6:8-7:60
8And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. 9But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. 10But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God." 12And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.
- Acts 6:8-12
Luke writes that beyond his work as a deacon, Stephen also performed miracles and thus became the first member of the church, aside from the Apostles, to do so. We learn later on that the ability to speak in tongues, heal others and work miracles was transferred to believers by the laying on of the Apostle's hands (Acts 8:14-18). This is how Stephen received his ability to do these things.
He was wise and spiritually mature which explains his ability to preach, teach and debate with the Hellenists. Stephen himself was a Hellenistic Jew converted to Christianity and was now attacked by other Hebrew Hellenists who considered him a traitor for his conversion. They tried debating him and were unsuccessful so they resorted to the same tactics used to have Jesus arrested and executed. They stirred up the people with lies and this provided the Jewish leaders an opportunity to arrest him.
13They put forward false witnesses who said, "This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; 14for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us." 15And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.
- Acts 6:13-15
Once before the Jewish leaders, several charges are brought against him which are nearly the same as the ones brought against Jesus (it worked then, why not now?). Luke records the various accusations (without evidence) made by false witnesses who lied in order to secure his conviction. Very much like Jesus, Stephen did not debate or defend himself against his accusers. Perhaps included in the Lord's promise to provide His disciples with the wisdom to give a proper answer when questioned also came the ability to know when to say nothing as well.
Stephen's Response (7:1-53)
1The high priest said, "Are these things so?"
2And he said, "Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, 3and said to him, 'Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.'
- Acts 7:1-3
Prodded by the high priest to speak and answer the charges, which would have been useless since the purpose of the hearing was to find him guilty and execute him, Stephen instead proceeds to recite the story of the Jewish people. He begins with Abraham and his initial call by God to leave his home (Mesopotamia - Iraq) and go to the land of Canaan (Israel). He summarizes their history and heroes, as well as God's dealing with them as His chosen nation. Stephen then brings the story to the present day and concludes with the same accusation that Peter made when he and the other Apostles were dragged before these very same men.
51"You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. 52Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; 53you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it."
- Acts 7:51-53
His accusations are harsh but true:
- They were stubborn, hard-hearted and completely unspiritual.
- They were disobedient, resisting God's Spirit.
- They were as evil and disobedient as their forefathers.
- They not only killed the prophet (John the Baptist) sent to announce the coming of the Messiah, they also killed the Messiah Himself (Jesus).
- They received the divinely appointed Law but did not honor or keep it.
Stephen's indictment of them is complete: guilty in the past (their ancestors rejected and killed the prophets sent to them), and guilty in the present (of rejecting and killing their own Messiah). He leaves out the future because the judgment to come for their sins is evident if not spoken.
Stephen's Death (7:54-60)
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him.
- Acts 7:54
His accusations hit home and the Jewish leaders experience extreme emotion (cut to the quick/sawn in two/gnashing of teeth/grinding one's teeth in suppressed rage). Despite this, however, they do not make a move against him as he is still able to speak.
55But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56and he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
- Acts 7:55-56
In His mercy and knowing what is to come, God gives Stephen a vision of the heaven he is about to enter as his reward for being faithful unto death. Note that Luke mentions that Jesus is standing at the right hand of God twice, thus signifying His authority (right hand). Some commentators (Lenski, p. 304) suggest that Jesus is standing to welcome the first saint and martyr to reach heaven since the church was established on Pentecost Sunday.
But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.
- Acts 7:57
It is one thing to accuse them to their faces of rejecting the Messiah. After all, Peter had done the same and every one of the 25,000 disciples in Jerusalem shared in his accusation by accepting Christ. Now, however, this man was claiming to actually see both God and Jesus in heaven. In their estimation, this was blasphemy! Stephen was raising himself up as one who could see God in the heavens. They would hear no more and in a rage moved to silence him.
58When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" 60Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" Having said this, he fell asleep.
- Acts 7:58-60
Note that the "trial" did not follow the normal procedure with a vote or a 24-hour cooling off period before pronouncing sentence, especially one requiring an execution. I've mentioned in our study of Luke's gospel that the Jews were not permitted to execute criminals, they had to go through the Roman officials as they had done with Jesus. However, this was no longer a trial to seek justice but an angry mob taking the law into their own hands and murdering someone in an act of rage. I believe, however, that there were no repercussions for two reasons:
- Stephen was not a high profile person like Jesus and had not come to the attention of Herod or Pilate.
- Even if Christians complained and brought charges, they could not do so to the Jewish leaders for obvious reasons, and dared not approach Pilate after what happened to Jesus.
Luke chooses to introduce Saul (Paul) at this point as one who minded the cloaks of those stoning Stephen. The witnesses were those who testified against Stephen. According to the Law these men were required to cast the first stones as the ones who had witnessed the crime for which the person was being executed (Deuteronomy 17:6). In this case these people were adding murder to the sin of perjury they had already committed.
Stephen is not afraid of dying because he is absolutely sure where he is going, to the point where he calls on the Lord to receive his spirit. He fell "asleep" signifying that he entered the period of waiting until the return of Jesus. And, what must have been hard for the Jews to bear, Stephen's final words are not a cry for help or a curse on his attackers but, like Jesus, a plea to God to forgive those who are in the process of killing him.
In this way God provides us with a model for those who would suffer a martyr's death:
- Do not act like your executioners.
- Keep your eyes of faith on Jesus.
- Do not exchange a few more years of life on this earth for an early departure for heaven.
- Forgive those who are taking your life because in doing so you may have a chance to see them in heaven one day.
Satan Always Finds a Way
Notice that it does not take long before Satan begins his attacks on the young church in Jerusalem.
- Peter is arrested in an effort to silence him.
- All of the Apostles are arrested in order to remove the church's leadership.
- Some begin to stir up trouble in the benevolence ministry.
- The Jews attack a dynamic servant of the church who is having an impact on the people in the name of Christ.
It began almost from the beginning and has continued throughout history to this very day. Satan continually attacks the church, especially when it is growing and bearing fruit.
We Will All See What Stephen Saw
Stephen saw Jesus at the right hand of God just moments before he fell asleep (the kind of death believers experience as they await Jesus' return and their awakening from sleep). We will both see and hear Jesus at the right hand of God saying, "Well done good and faithful servant." This is what we will experience a moment after being awakened by an angel's trumpet and the call of the Lord when He returns. Stephen was only a man, but as the first Christian to die, God has shown all of us through him what to expect after death no matter how we die (a time of peaceful sleep, then the resurrection and the ability to see and hear Jesus Himself welcome us to heaven).
- On average women are usually more faithful and active in the church. Why then do you think God entrusted the leadership of the church to men?
- In your opinion, what does your church need to do to recruit qualified deacons?
- Describe ways that Satan has attacked your church and how it dealt with this. Could the church have avoided trouble? How?