Acts 6 - 7: The Story of Stephen
The First Deacons
This passage shows us the appointment of the first men appointed to help the apostles minister to the church. We normally call them the first deacons. They are not actually called deacons in the passage, but were servants to the church, so we see them as a model for the office of deacon.
The need for deacons arose from a dispute between the Hellenist Christians and the Hebrew Christians. There was a daily distribution of food or money to poor widows. The Greek speaking Jews complained that their widows were neglected in favor of the Hebrew\Aramaic speaking Jews.
The local Jews spoke Aramaic in daily life. At the synagogue, services were in Hebrew. They were part of the local community in Jerusalem and its customs.
Jews from other parts of the Roman empire spoke Greek in daily life, had some customs adopted from Greek and Roman life, and did not know or observe the local customs. These Jews believed their widows were not being attended to.
This could have been a simple language problem. Or it could have been a cultural clash. Luke does not tell us which it is, only that the Greek speaking widows were neglected.
The controversy brought about the need for men to minister to the congregation so that the apostles could focus on preaching and prayer. The apostles had been commissioned by Jesus to preach the gospel and make disciples. So, they called the church together and told them to pick 7 men to minister to the widows. (2)
The apostles said they would not focus on “waiting on tables”. (2) This phrase translates the word “diakoneo”, which means to serve or wait on. It refers to a service which meets someone else’s needs. The person that does this is called a “diakonos”, from which the English word “deacon” is derived.
The qualifications the apostles gave for these are threefold: (1) good reputation; (2) full of the Holy Spirit; and (3) full of wisdom, which would be necessary to solve these type of problems. The congregation would put forward the names, but the apostles would appoint them.
The men the congregation chose are listed by Luke. All seven have Greek names and, therefore, may have been Hellenists. Nicolaus was not born a Jew. He was a convert, or proselyte. Only two are ever mentioned again: Stephen and Philip. They are named first for this reason. (6) Stephen and Philip went beyond service to widows to become preachers and co-workers with the apostles in the gospel ministry.
Stephen is described as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. He must have been exceptional to be described this way out of a group of men that were to be full of the Spirit.
The apostles appointed the deacons by praying over them and laying their hands over them. That is how we came to our present way of ordaining deacons. (6)
This division of labor was effective. The disciples preached and people were saved in increasing numbers with even many Jewish priests becoming Christians. (7)
Stephen went far beyond ministering to widows. Luke wrote that he was full of grace and power. (8) He began to perform miracles (great wonders and signs). His great work for Christ brought on persecution. A group of of Jews from various synagogues that were attended by those from other countries began to dispute with Stephan. This is probably because their members were converting to Christianity as a result of Stephan’s ministry. However, they were not able to successfully dispute with him since Stephan was wise and Spirit filled. (10)
Unsuccessful in confrontation, these Jews resorted to a whisper campaign, saying Stephen blasphemed God, spoke ill of Moses and said Jesus would destroy the temple and change their customs.
Here we see that the apostles accurately conveyed the teaching of Jesus to a second generation of believers, such as Stephen. John 2:19 records Jesus responding to the demand of the Jews for a sign. Jesus told them the sign was “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up”. He was, of course, speaking of his body as the temple. The apostles heard Jesus say these words and taught them to others like Stephen. Stephen, in turn, was teaching them to a third generation of believers.
Stephen’s enemies aroused the elders and the scribes, who seized him and brought him before the council (the Sanhedrin). (12) The members of the council looked at Stephen and saw that his face was that of an angel. He was full of the Spirit, full of faith, and comfortable in doing the will of his Savior and Lord. His face radiated the glory of God.
The high priest, as head of the Sanhedrin, began the examination. It was the job of the Sanhedrin to investigate a complaint of teaching by any Jew. To begin the examination, the high priest asked Stephen if the accusations were true. It was an invitation to deny the accusations. Instead, Stephen gave a long history lesson and applied it to the current day.
The lesson for us is to take the occasion to present the gospel when confronted. When your faith is challenged, you can take that as an opportunity to present the gospel as well as defend the faith.
Stephen’s sermon demonstrates his mastery of the Old Testament narrative. It is also quite long. But, we can break it down into sections.
The Story of Abraham
Stephen began with the story of Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew race and religion. Stephen told the story of God calling Abraham out of Mesopotamia to go to Canaan. He pointed out that Abraham never occupied Canaan and his descendants went to live in Egypt for 400 years, where they were afflicted. Abraham also received a covenant and the sign of the covenant, circumcision. He was the father of Isaac and grandfather of Jacob. Jacob was the father of the “patriarchs’, the first of the 12 tribes of Israel.
The Story of Joseph
The patriarchs sold their brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, but God made him ruler of Egypt. He was able to take care of his father and brothers during the severe famine. You see here the beginning of Stephen’s subtle argument, the continued rebellion of the Jews against God’s plan. Here, the revered patriarchs commit a grievous sin against their brother, but God used their actions to further his plan.
The Story of Moses In Egypt
The Israelites came under persecution in Egypt to the point of having to kill all of their babies. But Moses was born and was beautiful in God’s sight; he had favor with God because God had a job for him to do. Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s house and educated, but then killed an Egyptian who was hurting one of the Jews. Yet, those very Jews rejected Moses and asked who made him a ruler or judge one them. So, Moses fled to Midian, settled down and had a family and life there.
The Calling of Moses
After living in Midian 40 years, an angel appeared to Moses in the burning bush and had an encounter with God. God sent Moses to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel.
The Rejection of Moses
Stephen began here to draw a parallel between Moses and Jesus. He pointed out that the people rejected Moses. He said “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying who made you a ruler and a judge, was sent to deliver Israel and did so.” The Jews of Stephen’s time revered Moses, considering him the lawgiver and first prophet of the people. Stephen reminded them that this same Moses prophesied that God would give them a prophet like Moses.
But the people rejected Moses again, when he was on the mountain receiving the covenant law from God. Stephen said the refused to obey him and thrust him aside, turning their heart to Egypt. They told Aaron to make idols for them, which resulted in the worship of the golden calf. Later, they rejected God for the worship of foreign gods. These led to God sending them into exile.
The Building of the Temple
One of the charges against Stephen was that he taught the destruction of the temple. Stephen wound down his sermon by circling back to the temple. He reminded them that they had the tabernacle, then the temple. Yet, he said, they missed the point. God said he did not dwell in a temple made by hands, but lived in heaven, quoting Isaiah 66:1-2. Israel thought God was confined to their temple, but Stephen taught that God intended the tabernacle and temple to be temporary until the coming of Jesus.
Stephen concluded his sermon\defense with an accusation of sin. He said the jews always resisted the Holy Spirit. They killed the prophets, those who foretold the coming of Christ, then they murdered Christ (the Righteous One). He even said they did not keep the law. In other words, they rejected God, his prophets, his word, and now his Christ. They, not Stephen, were on the wrong side of this matter.
The Stoning of Stephen
As you would expect, this sermon only made the Jews more angry. Luke wrote that they were “enraged” or “furious”. They were so angry they ground their teeth. They covered their ears and yelled to drown out his speech.
Yet, none of this anger affected Stephen. He was neither angry nor afraid. He was full of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen’s defense of Christ, and his coming execution, led the Lord to give Stephen a special blessing. He looked into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand. (56) He got a glimpse of heaven and of the Lord. He saw the glory of God because God is Spirit, not flesh. But he saw the Lord Jesus who became man and was then exalted to God’s right hand. What a sight that must have been.
I find it interesting that Jesus stood next to God’s throne. As we have seen in Psalm 110, the Father had Jesus sit at his right hand. Sitting is a sign that his work is finished. He is to sit there until all his enemies are put under his feet and he returns to collect his followers. So, why is he standing here? I think it is in honor of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, who stood for Christ in the face of his enemies.
The crowd grabbed Stephen and dragged him out of the city. This is symbolic of the Old Testament law to take any unclean thing out of the camp. They stoned him to death.
Luke inserted a little fact that foreshadows the later parts of this book. A young man named Saul was there watching and guarding the coats of those who stoned Stephen. This Saul would later be converted to become the great apostle to the Gentiles.
Stephen’s last words were reminiscent of Christ’s last words. He called on the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit as Jesus had cried out to the Father to receive his. And, as Jesus did, he asked the Lord not to hold this sin against those who stoned him. Even dying from their actions, Stephen was more concerned for their salvation than his death.
What a word this is to us. We often back down to our persecutors, even in the face of very mild opposition or ridicule. When we do stand for Christ, we often do it aggressively and even bitterly. But Scripture says “…always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) There are two commands here, equal in importance: (1) always defend the faith; and (2) always use gentleness and respect.