The Delegation of Duties and the Arrest of St. Steven
[Acts chapter 6]
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Last week when we concluded our study and analysis of part 3 of Acts chapter 5, we closed out with the apostles as they left the Sanhedrin after being released from custody for preaching and teaching in the Name of the Son of God. They were rejoicing after having been flogged, and for spending the night in jail for proclaiming that Jesus Christ had died and then rose again in order to save humanity. This week as we move on to chapter 6, we will find it is actually a segue into the inspiring story of Stephen, an early Church leader who achieved martyrdom without even trying. So let’s begin our study of this week’s lesson starting at verse 1, and I quote:
“In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.’ This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procuras, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented the men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6, verses 1-7)
A lack of maturity among a sizable portion of humanity is nothing new, and the same goes for church gatherings of all types. The early Church was no exception, as we can see from this first verse of the above passage. But the complaints of the Greek and Israeli Jews against one another are, to me, a side issue compared to what else is mentioned in that same verse – daily food distribution. As I pointed out back in Acts chapter 4, the early Church operated like a social democracy. When people were converted to Christianity as it was originally intended, those who owned property or other riches sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles on a voluntary basis. That money was used to provide food, clothing and as a referral for shelter arrangements to anyone who had a legitimate need. Remember too, this was back in the day before government usurped this responsibility so public welfare could be introduced. There was no unemployment or disability available either. Since the need was so great, there was also a complete lack of discrimination to this unconditional help, and so occasionally disagreements would break out.
By this time, the Church was going through growing pains, and its rate of expansion was outrunning the abilities of the Twelve to keep up with things. So here, then, we have the first instance of the delegation of authority among the greater Church, like the first division of a single cell into two. Today, that same Greater Church has well over 2 ½ billion members! But to get back to today’s lesson, the delegation of authority was given to seven men, starting with Steven, who we will get to shortly. So they chose “seven men from among (them) who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” Food is important, everyone has to eat, but taking care of this had become a distraction instead of a ministry. Still, since the need was so critical back then, with the overwhelming majority of people being trapped in poverty, the most trustworthy men were appointed to oversee this task. Evidently no women were chosen out of security concerns, not because of what we would call gender bias. And now let’s move on to part 2 of today’s lesson, beginning at verse 8.
“Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say this Jesus of Nazereth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.’ All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw his face was like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6, verses 8-15)
Who in verses 8 and 9 are the Synagogue of Freedmen? This is what eventually became the Freemasons, although it went through quite a few changes along the way. Today Freemasonry is generally associated with the Occult, which is the polar opposite of Christianity and everything Jesus stood for. Some well-meaning Christians have been misled into believing the Masons are a Christian organization, but they are Christian in name only. For these reasons, I advise against joining them, and I would advise Christians who are currently Freemasons to strongly reconsider their membership. As for myself, it’s Jesus and him alone for me. I don’t need to belong to the Masons to prove my loyalty for Christ, and neither should you!
Stephen’s passion for Christ was so evident that these men from the ‘Synagogue of Freedmen’ became very irritated with him to the point of being verbally abusive – at first. But as our text says, Stephen was simply too smart for his opposition. So they set him up to take a fall – a permanent one. “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.’ So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law.” So what we have here is a 1st century equivalent to a combination propaganda and smear campaign, and it was all aimed at Stephen! As we read in the above passage of scripture, this ultimately became a lynch mob. “They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses….” The prosecution of Stephen before the Sanhedrin – the same Sanhedrin that handed Jesus over to Pilate and who had flogged the apostles twice (so far) for teaching that Jesus was in fact the Messiah – was going to go in much the same fashion as before, except that Stephen vigorously defended himself and his faith, and he did so brilliantly, as we will see.
“For we have heard him say this Jesus of Nazereth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” As the late attorney general and assassinated presidential candidate Robert Kennedy once observed, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator, and change has its enemies.” Things were much the same way during the time of the early Church, and Stephen was a prime example. The followers of Christ, from the Twelve on down to the lowliest orphan, were the polar opposite of the way the world was and is, as opposed to the way Jesus said things should be. The Roman Empire ruled from the top down in a hierarchical – that is, predatory – management arrangement. Bully authority ruled the day back then, and things are much the same today. It’s just that today they have much better weapons, and it’s all been computerized.
But besides an entirely new way of organization, which bears some similarities to the “sharing economy” that’s just starting to get rolling along in the present day, there was another thing about Christ that threatened the Sanhedrin’s influence. Jesus exposed the extreme corruption of the high priests, scribes and teachers of the Law. You will recall when we studied Luke’s gospel from some time ago, how Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple and overturned all their table and chairs? The reason was because of the requisite sacrifices that had to be made as specified by what was then called the Law of Moses, or the Old Testament as we know it today. These sacrifices were live animals, primarily sheep, oxen or goats. But when the livestock was brought to the temple, the ruling elites would oftentimes force the unlucky faithful to buy a sacrificial animal in place of their own, rejecting their animals for frivolous reasons. As a result, the temple was converted into a very profitable enterprise, to the complete consternation of Christ, as you all know, not to mention all his followers. It’s a good thing Jesus did away with all that by making himself the sacrifice at Calvary. In modern times, the animal rights activists would be completely up in arms at such a spectacle!
“All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw his face was like the face of an angel.” At this point, Stephen is being accused of crimes that carried the death penalty. His very life is at stake as he finds himself dragged before a kangaroo court with an angry mob for his accusers. Most of us would be angry, humiliated and probably feeling pretty defensive too. Yet Steven is standing there before the court, undoubtedly in chains and surrounded by people who want to kill him, and he is in total ecstasy! He doesn’t care that he’s going on trial for what amounts to heresy and blasphemy in the eyes of his Jewish captors. The fact that Steven was himself of Jewish heritage was actually working against him. But the one thing that was working against him the most was his unwavering faith in Christ. And next week, we will take up where we left off as we start on part 1 of Acts chapter 7, where the inspiring story of Steven continues in dramatic fashion, as a 2,000 year old courtroom scene plays out for all posterity to see. Until then, pray every day as often as you can. The more prayers, the more results. Shalom….