Last time, in part one of our studies, Stephen was identified by Luke, as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” Acts 6:5.
The church which Jesus promised to build in Matthew 16:18, was established in the city of Jerusalem in Acts 2, as promised by Jesus the Christ Matt. 16:20, since it’s impossible for God, Christ or the Holy Spirit to lie Titus 1:2. In Acts 6:1 with the rapid growth of the Lord’s church in Jerusalem, “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”. So in verse 3 the multitude of disciples was summoned by the apostles, to select from their number, seven men “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” Stephen was one of the seven men who in verse 5 were chosen. He and the others were for a time, temporarily absent, from their work of preaching the gospel, in order to resolve an existing emergency, whiles the twelve apostles continued their work. Luke is silent as to how long this apostolic command took.
But from Acts 6:8, Stephen is now back “performing great wonders and signs among the people”. According to J.W. McGarvey’s, in his New Commentary on Acts of Apostles pg. 111, “This is the first exhibition of miraculous power by any but an apostle. Whether Stephen received the power to work wonders and signs before or after his appointment as deacon, we have no means of determining; neither does the writer tell us in what way it was imparted to him. He reserves information on the subject of imparting spiritual gifts to be a point in the history further on (viii. 14-17). Please note with me here, that in Acts 8:17, the power which was given to Stephen and the others of Acts 6:5 had come through the laying on of hands, by the apostles. None, but the apostles could bestow this power on another, with the death of the last apostles, this power ceased.
Though many in Jerusalem were made glad, by the preaching of the gospel, but we find others, manifesting a very belligerent and revengeful attitude toward it, their utter hatred was demonstrated by their inhumane treatment of its messengers, as men like Stephen. We find in Acts 6:9, the Synagogue of the Freedman, “For a synagogue to be constructed, it took at least ten individuals, in Jerusalem, there were no fewer than 480 synagogues said to have been erected in Jerusalem, previously to its capture and destruction by the Romans”, Introduction to the Scriptures, vol. III, pg. 251, by Thomas Hartwell Horne (1780-1862). Some from among the Freedman’s NASB, Libertines KJV arose and disputed with Stephen. We’re not told whether they were from among the leaders or not, “All though scholars used to assume that the Pharisees (the likely precursors to the rabbis) were in charge of synagogues, most first century sources identify elders, priests, and archisyagogoi (Greek for “heads of synagogues”) as the leaders of synagogues, Mark 5:22-23) Chad Spitel, “First Century Synagogues.
Regarding the constituents which made up the Synagogue of the Freedman, there are two opinions, one it was makeup of freed Italian Jews or proselytes and the other from African Jews from the city or country called Libertus or Libertina near Carthage. The NASB text includes also the men from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia i.e. west coast provinces of Asia Minor.
Even though, those who rose up had seen the wonders and signs which Stephen had done, which confirmed the source of his message, as being from heaven. Rather than being obedient to the faith, as many of the priests were in Acts 6:7, they arose to argue with Stephen, but in reality they were argumentative with God and his anointed one, in this case, Stephen. Whatever position these men may have held in the synagogue, they could not cope with the wisdom and Spirit with which Stephen was speaking, verse 10. It’s rather obvious from the text that these were men of influence, and unified in purpose. We find in verse 11, “they secretly induced men to say, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God”, those induced were nothing more than mere puppets, liars at the tug of the string. In verse 12, “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”.
This was the Sanhedrin, also called the Great Sanhedrin, the highest council of the ancient Jews, consisting of seventy-one members, and exercising authority from about the second century B.C.” At the time of Christ these seventy-one members were divided into three chambers, as follows: the chamber of the priests; the chamber of the scribes, or doctors; the chamber of the elders” Josephus, Wars of the Jews, IT. xx. 5. The historical account given by Josephus regarding the makeup of the council is correct, because we find in Mark 14:53, regarding the arrest of Jesus, “They led Jesus away to the high priest; and all the chief priests and the elders and all the scribes gathered together” NASB. When taking into account, that Jesus was led away to the council and that Stephen was dragged and brought before it.
A growing sense of antagonism against Christians is clearly in evidence. While before the council, brought before Stephen, were false witnesses, who were in agreeable company, fearless of being charged with perjury, they were at liberty to speak whatever they wanted to. But amidst all this, “And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel”. In evidence here, was the marks of an innocent man. I want conclude this article, with a couple of interesting and reasonable comments about Stephen’s face “as it had been the face of an angel”, “It is not meant that there was anything miraculous in the case of Stephen, but it is language that denotes calmness, dignity, and confidence in God, all of which were so marked on his countenance that it impressed them with clear proof of his innocence and piety” Albert Barnes, Acts, pg. 117.
Secondly, “There is no need to suppose anything supernatural in his appearance. He was standing just where his Master had stood when condemned to die; he was arraigned on a similar charge; he had the same judges; and he knew perfectly well that the court had come together not to try him, but to condemn him. He knew that the supreme hour of his life had come; and the emotions which stirred his soul as he thought of the past, of death, of heaven, of the cause which he had pleaded, and of the foul murder about to be perpetrated, necessarily lit up his countenance with a glow almost supernatural. If his features, as is highly probable, were naturally fine and expressive, the crowning ornament of a noble form, it is not surprising that in such a moment his face should be compared to that of angel” J.W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostle, pgs. 115-116.
As the events from Acts 6:8-15 were unfolding; God’s spotlight has been divinely focused on Stephen. He was unquestionably, a man of strong faith, with a conviction void of compromise and ever present, was an unflinching display of courage, in standing firm for what he believed, even if in doing so, meant being put to death. He personifies those mentioned in Hebrews 11:37 and by John the apostle in Rev. 2:10.
In discussing Stephen, I intended two articles, but in all fairness to the man, to his cause and to his memory, two would not do justice to this great man, so I realized the need for a third article which will be devoted to his defense before the council in Acts 7, a remarkable sermon indeed, by a remarkable man.
Don Craven is a member of the McArthur Heights Church of Christ, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.