30 Years That Changed The World
Acts for today...

Week 4:  The Church in the Arena

Read Acts chapter 6
Stephen's Ministry Takes Off
Newly commissioned as a church worker, Stephen adds miracles and preaching to his duties of a practical nature. God's enemies soon appear trying to discredit him.
We are not entirely sure why Stephen has such an impact in his ministry of communicating truth and power, when he is supposed to be waiting on tables!!  Certainly only the apostles have been credited with such power and authority up to this point; it seems they passed this authority on to Stephen when he was commissioned for ministry (6:6)

·      What can we learn from this about selecting people for ministry roles in the church?

It’s a clear reminder to us that God is sovereign and perfectly capable of using people in any way He wants. We may not think a waiter should have a powerful miracle-ministry, but God might. We must not restrict Him,

Opposition soon turns up, apparently from those who shared Stephen’s Greek language and cultural background, These Jews call themselves free (6: 9 'freed men') but are bound by prejudice and fear of this new teaching. They try to argue with this Christian worker but he has been well taught by the apostles and speaks with the power of the Spirit. They cannot defeat his argument (verse 10), but where logic and truth fail them, deceit and treachery come to their rescue - they recruit some false Witnesses, lobby the religious leadership and kidnap Stephen to bring him to the ,Council. (Not a body of men noted for their warmth towards the Christians -:- see 5:18, 5:33). Things continue to go downhill for Stephen as the false witnesses repeat and enlarge on their allegations in front of the Sanhedrin (verse 13). Their charges are not so much complete fabrication as grotesque distortions of what he had said.

·      Compare this with how Jesus was treated in Matt 26:61

Despite all this pressure he still remains calm and assured - God's Spirit giving him the appearance of an angel (6:15). There is more than a touch of irony here:
Moses is under threat, Stephen's accusers say, and yet the description of Stephen parallels that of Moses having just had his meeting with God (Ex 34:29).

Notice how the freed men are totally unconcerned about whether the message of Stephen is true or not. It threatens their position and perhaps even their safety (what if people assume they are linked with Stephen because of their shared culture and language?); Stephen must be stopped. Truth must not be allowed to get in the way of comfort and security!

Questions to consider
·      Are you stuck in one ministry, because you believe God cannot use you for anything else? How can we recognise when ministries are changing or developing - in
ourselves and others?

·      How do you feel when you are being lied about (see verse 13)? How should you feel ... and react?
·      How do we behave when our comfort and security are threatened? How can we be open to new ideas, correction or anything else which makes us feel vulnerable?
Stephen Begins his Defence

Read Acts 7:1-8

The longest speech in the book of Acts begins.  Stephen describes some highlights from Jewish history - starting with Abraham - all leading to Jesus.

After hearing from the accusers (6:13, 14), the high priest turns his attention to the defence. Stephen is invited to confess his guilt or deny it (7:1); he chooses to launch into a major speech, drawing on significant portions of the Old Testament to establish his case.  It’s important to understand that this is not an academic lecture on Jewish history.  Some important incidents are missed out and some of the information seems a bit muddled when we look back to the Old Testament itself.  This is a man arguing for his life in the cauldron of treachery which the Council meeting had become. We are a million miles from the detached objectivity of the lecture room! The thrust of the argument is what is vital, not the neat arrangement of the material.

After a respectful, almost warm, greeting (verse 2 'brothers and fathers'), Stephen begins his defence with Abraham, one of the earliest and most significant people in all of Jewish history.  Stephen describes how faith played a significant part in Abraham's life. Without knowing where he was going (verse 3 cf. Gen. 12:1) he was to set off!  Given all the dangers of travel in the ancient world, this journey would have been reckless, even foolish, had it not been a step of faith in response to a word from God. (There are important lessons here. To act 'in faith' when God has not spoken is reckless and irresponsible. To not act when He has spoken is disobedient and faithless. Listen and obey).
Abraham also had to exercise faith when he arrived in the land he was promised. He would not see the fulfilment in his own lifetime, but his descendants (after a period in Egypt, see Gen. 15:13,14) would inherit the land (verses 4-7). The covenant of circumcision was then given as a Sign of the special relationship between God and Abraham and his descendants (verse 8).  Rom. 4:9f is Paul's development of Stephen's argument.  Abraham exercised faith, which led to circumcision; he did not believe because of circumcision, circumcision was given because he believed!

All this seems immensely complicated to us. We need to remember that their history was very, very important to the Jews. Their ancestors were not just figures of interest, but role-models to follow.  ‘If Abraham did it so should we'.  Stephen is trying to demonstrate that if they want to be good Jews they should remember not only the result of Abraham’s relationship with God (they were absorbed by the rite of circumcision and the possession of the land) but also the cause of it. (Faith and obedience, cf. 3:17, 4:19).

Questions to consider
·      How can we discern the difference between faith and foolishness? How can we help each other?
·      What can we learn from our own history - the story of the church? Why is it important?
·      How can we make sure we do not get absorbed in the work of the Lord but forget the Lord of the work?
Stephen - The First Martyr

 Read Acts 7:51-8:1a

Stephen brings his defence to a passionate conclusion. The Council's verdict is 'death'. God's verdict is 'glory'!

And so Stephen concludes his speech. He has painstaking built up his evidence to arrive at the conclusion that the excessive preoccupation of his contemporaries with the Land, the Law and the Temple (worthy though they are) has blinded them to the significance of Jesus the Messiah (verses 2-50). Despite claiming to be students of the Old Testament, they have missed, ignored or misunderstood this vital strand m Its teaching.

In these verses Stephen moves from defence to attack. Using language reminiscent of the ancient prophets (cf. Ex. 33:5, Isaiah 63:10), he accuses them of being Just like the rebellious Israelites of old.  Like their ancestors they resist God (verse 51b) and reject His messengers (verse 52a) and have now gone so far as to reject the Messiah - by killing Him (verse 52b)! (This last accusation must have stung. The Council has heard it twice before from Peter (4:10, 5:30). What is more, even by their own standards ('the Law' verse 53) they have disobeyed God.

They are wild with anger (Christians seemed to have this effect on the Sanhedrin, cf. 5:33) contorting their faces and mouths in rage (verse 54). Stephen, by contrast, is serene and peaceful; a vision of his Messiah with God the Father (verse 55) fills his mind. (The words of Jesus in Mark 14:62 may well have prompted this experience.) The Council can stand it no longer. They cover their ears, scream abuse at Stephen and drag him off to be bludgeoned to death by rocks and stones at the edge of the city (verses 57, 58).
Stephen dies as he has lived, filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 55), with a prayer on his lips for his killers (verse 60) and a commitment of himself back to God (verse 59).  In many ways he reminds us of Jesus: his lack of resistance, his serene spirit and his dying words (cf. Luke 23:34, 46). He is the first Christian martyr, he will not be the last.  His courage and bearing have strengthened many down the centuries in their final hours.

Twice in this section, Luke mentions someone who will come to dominate the last part of Acts and tower over the development of the early church. He is a young man named Saul (verse 58b, 8:1a). He guards the cloaks of the executioners and approves of the death of this Christian 'heretic'. But God will have the final word in his life!
Questions to consider
·      How can we learn to forgive our enemies when we feel more like revenge?
·      Do you think Stephen's example played a part in Saul's conversion? List the people who played a part in yours and thank God for them.
·      Would you be prepared to die for your faith? Lose your job? Your friends? What priority does our faith have in our lives? What can we do to help people in countries where these things often happen?
Bob Kiteley

Bob Kiteley, 13/06/2013