Saturday, October 6, 2012

Courage to Speak

Unit II – “Who Understands Faith?” In the days presented by this lesson, the followers of the Christian religion had grown to a great number. The disciples found it necessary to choose seven men for the administration of duties and over the community of goods among the Greek (Hellenistic) widows along with the Hebrews. We are introduced to Stephen in our printed passage recorded in Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-2a. The devotional reading is Proverbs 8:1-11.

Beforehand the Christians were of one accord. Now they were greatly multiplied and murmuring had begun among them. The followers of Christ would put their belongings in a common stock. (See Acts 6:1-5) It would then be distributed proportionately. However, there was a feeling by the Greek widows that the Hebrew widows were receiving an unfair share from the common stock. The disciples felt it unreasonable to stop preaching and teaching the Word of God in order to administer the service of tables to the community. They delegated to the multitude the task to find seven (7) “…men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” Acts 6:3 The men were to be from among both the Hebrews and the Grecians in order that there be no reason for further complaints. The multitude of disciples in Jerusalem were pleased to have been delegated this task. Among the men they chose for appointment was “…Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost…” Acts 6:5b

‘Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.’ Acts 6:6-7 These seven men of faith were set before the apostles for approval. The apostles prayed to the Almighty God and laid hands on them to grant them their commission and authority. Following the commission of the seven deacons, the apostles were able to greatly preach and teach the Word of God. The number of disciples coming into the church in Jerusalem rose greatly. Also, a company of priests who had been obedient to the Mosaic law gave their heart to Christ and became obedient to the faith.

‘And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.’ Acts 6:8 Stephen proved himself to be more than a faithful deacon who distributed the daily ministrations to the widows. He proved that he was a man of God, full of faith and the power of the Holy Ghost, able to do great miracles and wonders among the people, and boldly proclaim the Word of God.

‘Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.’ Acts 6:9-10 The Synagogue of the Libertines was also known as The Synagogue of the Freedmen. It was the meeting place for Hellenistic Jews – some of whom may have been former slaves. They were from many areas, to include Cyrene (Africa), Alexandria (Egypt), and Cilicia and Asia (each of Asia Minor). These men had been watching Stephen and decided he had to be stopped. Unfortunately for them, Stephen had great wisdom from God, a love and passion for Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, courage to speak, and was a great orator. He could not be defeated in a debate.

‘Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,’ Acts 6:11-12 These zealous Jews were no match for Stephen. He went about doing his daily ministrations faithfully, but his ministry had grown to that of an evangelist. He had not done anything wrong. He was simply the first non-apostle recorded in the book of Acts to perform miracles. In a desperate move to silence him, they conspired and secretly convinced false witnesses (probably for money) to say they had heard him speak insulting (blasphemous) words against the foundations of their religion, God and Moses. Naturally this stirred up those people who attended daily prayer services and offered sacrifices in the Temple. It stirred the elders (Sadducees) who ran the Temple and its daily operations. They certainly did not want to see the sacrifices cease. It also stirred the scribes who were knowledgeable of the law. Stephen was hauled before the Sanhedrin Council. The Sanhedrin consisted of 70 men, plus its president, the high priest. Its members were chief priests, scribes, and elders.

‘And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.’ Acts 6:13-14 The false witnesses gave false testimony to make the accusations credible. The charges were blasphemy against the Temple and the Law. He was falsely quoted as saying Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the whole system which Moses delivered to Israel. They refused to focus on the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, Stephen was accused of promoting the destruction of the Temple as well as the desecration of the Law and the associated Jewish religious traditions. Until the lies of the false witnesses stirred the people, elders, and scribes to anger, they were neutral and nonviolent regarding the preaching/sharing of the Gospel message. It had become obvious that Christianity was on the rise!

‘And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.’ Acts 6:15 As the Sanhedrin Council looked upon Stephen, he did not appear nervous or worried. The usual behavior would be anger, bitterness, and retaliation. They did not expect what they saw in him. He was not sweaty, jittery, or fidgety. He was calm. He knew he had not spoken anything blasphemous (insulting) against God or Moses. He knew that God would always take care of him. He knew he did not have to worry as to what he said. Jesus said, “But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.” Matt 10:19-20 Because Stephen had this fearlessness and faith in God, he had what appeared to be “the face of an angel”. He was innocent.

‘Then said the high priest, Are these things so? And he said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken;’ Acts 7:1-2a This was probably the same high priest (Caiaphas) who sat on the Sanhedrin Council when Jesus was condemned. The high priest ignored the angelic face which signified Stephen’s innocence and determined the false accusations had enough weight to be credible, if true. He asked Stephen to declare whether he was guilty of the accusations or not. Stephen responded, with more respect given him, by addressing them as brothers and fathers. He stood tall because he had been given the opportunity to defend himself. In his speech (see Acts 7:2-53), Stephen summarized the history of the Jews’ relationship with God. He discussed Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon. He had courage to speak before the enemies he faced on the Council. ‘Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.’ Prov 8:1, 7

Written by Deborah C Davis

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