Saturday, October 13, 2012

Paying the Price

Unit II – “Who Understands Faith?” In a quick review of our prior lesson, the Christians had multiplied greatly and the Grecian (Hellenistic) widows did not believe they were receiving their fair share from the common daily ministrations as the Hebrew widows. The disciples found it necessary to have the multitude choose seven men among the Greek and Hebrew widows to be appointed. We are introduced to Stephen (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1-2a) who not only administered the daily portions among the widows, but did great wonders and miracles among the people. His ministry became that of an evangelist. Jealous Jews bribed men to be false witnesses against him. He was brought before the Sanhedrin Council and charged with blasphemous words which promoted the destruction of the Temple, the Law, and the customs of all the Jewish traditions. When asked whether the charges were true, he welcomed the opportunity to defend himself by summarizing the history of the Jews’ relationship with God. (See Acts 7:2-53) He discussed Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon. He had courage to speak before the enemies he faced on the Council. In today’s lesson we shall review the climax of his message and his martyrdom as it is recorded in Acts 7:51-60; 8:1a. The devotional reading is Ephesians 6:13-20.

‘Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.’ Acts 7:51 Stephen now reaches the climax of his sermon. It is the longest one recorded in the book of Acts. Instead of pleading to be let go, he took the opportunity to deliver his message. After summarizing the history of the Jews’ relationship with God, he now boldly accuses them stating they have rejected God and the Holy Spirit in the same manner as their ancestors under the Law. He called them stiffnecked. This word is used often in the Bible. (Ex 32:9; Ex 33:3, 5; Deut 9;6, 13; Deut 10:16, etc.) It is a figurative expression taken from oxen that refuse to submit to be yoked. Their strong necks can’t be bent to the left or right. Just as the oxen were stubborn, so were the Israelites. They were also uncircumcised in both their heart and ears. Circumcision was considered a matter of cleanliness before God. Due to their continued disobedience, Stephen accused them of being uncircumcised in both their hearts (Jer 9:26) and ears (Jer 6:10). It was the Lord’s desire that their hearts were circumcised and they would no longer be stiff-necked. (Deut 10:16) Accept God and stop being stubborn. Accept the Holy Ghost and stop being stubborn. Their ancestors walked before the building of the Temple. Yet the Israelites worshiped the Temple as much as the Mosaic Law. Stephen accused the Council and onlookers of being the same as their ancestral fathers.

‘Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.’ Acts 7:52-53 God sent many prophets to His chosen people, the Israelites, to warn them of their disobedience and His displeasure with their sinful ways. In return the people mocked, persecuted and sometimes killed the prophets of God sent to save them. Enemies were then sent to take them captive until they cried for deliverance. They would experience a period of rest until the next cycle of disobedience, prophet, deliverance, and rest. Some of the prophets were persecuted or killed because they foretold the coming of the Messiah (Just One). And future generations had betrayed the very Messiah whom God sent as Savior – and even killed Him. They received the Word of God, but they never obeyed it. Stephen had become the prosecutor. He told the Sanhedrin Council and the onlookers they had failed to keep the law.

‘When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.’ Acts 7:54 Upon hearing the climax of Stephen’s sermon, the Council and onlookers felt more than disturbed. They were seething in anger and “cut to the heart”. They knew the truth when they heard it, but they would not, did not want to, accept the truth. They preferred denial and closing the mouth of the man who was speaking the truth. Their anger was manifested through the gnashing of their teeth. This is an expression of strong and often violent anger that can boil over into an all-out attack, usually physical, at any moment.1

‘But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.’ Acts 7:55-56 Stephen had no fear of the Council and the onlookers with their mob mentality. He was full of the Holy Ghost and, in faith, looked steadfastly and immoveable to God for strength. Stephen was about to become the first Christian martyr. God will never leave you nor forsake you. (Joshua 1:5b; Heb 13:5) He gave him the rare glimpse to see Heaven. Stephen saw the Shekinah glory of God and Jesus standing on His right hand. Stephen was overwhelmed by the magnificence he had been afforded. He revealed his vision. He saw the Son of God standing on the right hand of God. How could Stephen expect to receive a favorable hearing by mixing the name of God with the name of Jesus, the criminal they had just crucified?

‘Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,’ Acts 7:57 The people and the Council had heard enough. How dare Stephen mention the name of Jesus, the crucified, in the same sentence with God. He had spoken so much truth as to their history and now he seemed to imply they were wrong by crucifying Jesus. They were not ready to accept that Christ did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it. Matt 5:17 They did not understand that Christ did not come to destroy the Temple. They did not comprehend that Jesus was predicting the day of His Resurrection when speaking of the temple of His body. John 2:20-22 Therefore, they did not believe they had made a mistake in requiring His crucifixion. Stephen’s accusations and vision was more than could be handled! The charges of blasphemy against him had to be true. They began yelling very loudly and put their hands over their ears to stop hearing anything else Stephen had to say. They were united in rushing him.

‘And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.’ Acts 7:58 In following the letter of the Law, the Jewish leaders and onlookers dragged Stephen outside of Jerusalem. Because he was charged with blasphemy against the Temple, he was considered unclean and the Romans allowed an exception for them to perform Stephen’s execution outside the city. (See Luke 23:1-25) They did not wait for a sentence to be pronounced upon him. They pounced upon him like a mob and dragged him outside of the city in accordance with Lev 24:14-16, 23 for the purpose of death by stoning. The witnesses took off their outer clothing and laid them at the feet of Saul, later known in the epistles as Paul. It is unknown whether Saul was on the Sanhedrin Council, but he it is known that he was a Pharisee. He must have been a man of some importance since the witnesses laid their clothes at his feet. The stoning procedure began with the witnesses throwing the first stone(s) (Deut 17:7). Afterwards the remainder of the congregation will throw stones on the unclean accused until his final breath.

‘And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.’ Acts 7:59-60 There is great similarity in the comparison of Stephen’s passing to glory and that of our Lord’s. During the crucifixion of our Savior on the cross, He called upon the Almighty God to request the forgiveness of his executioners and to commend His spirit before He gave up His ghost. Luke 23:34, 46 During his torturous execution Stephen called upon the Lord Jesus, requesting forgiveness for his executioners as he knelt in prayer and to receive his spirit before he fell asleep. The terms “gave up the ghost” and “fell asleep” mean that both passed from life to death.

‘And Saul was consenting unto his death.’ Acts 8:1a Saul was so pleased. He believed he was doing a service for God and approved the stoning of Stephen. Later he admitted his presence when he converted and the Lord used him under the new name of Paul. “And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him. And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles.” Acts 22: 19-21

Because of the martyrdom of Stephen, Christians began to flee with the exception of the apostles. The apostles kept the Church in Jerusalem, the home of their fathers and the Temple. But the Christians fled to Judea, Samaria, Phenice, Cyprus, and Antioch. Acts 11:19 It was the Lord’s intent the Gospel be spread to all nations. What the executioners meant for bad actually turned out to be good for the kingdom of God.

1 Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, (1998), s.v. “Teeth.”

Written by Deborah C. Davis

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