A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 6:8-7:60. Stephen the martyr.
After the coming of the Spirit and the counter-attack of Satan (whose overthrow Luke has celebrated in 6:7), the church is almost ready to initiate its world-wide mission. So far it has been composed only of Jews and restricted to Jerusalem. Now, however the Holy Spirit is about to thrust its people out into the wider world, and the apostle Paul (Luke’s hero) is to be God’s chosen instrument to pioneer this development. But first, in the next six chapters of Acts, Luke explains how the foundations of the Gentile mission were laid by two remarkable men (Stephen the martyr and Philip the evangelist), followed by two remarkable conversions (Saul the Pharisee and Cornelius the centurion). These four men, each in his own way, together with Peter, through whose ministry Cornelius was converted, made an indispensable contribution to the global expansion of the church.
Stephen the martyr came first (6:8-8:2). His preaching aroused strenuous Jewish opposition, but in his carefully reasoned defence before the Sanhedrin he emphasized the freedom of the living God to go where he pleases and to call his people to go forth too. Although he failed to convince the Council and was stoned to death, his martyrdom seems to have had a profound influence on Saul of Tarsus. It also led to the scattering of the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria.
Philip the evangelist (8:4-40) had the distinction of being both the first to share the good news with the despised Samaritans and the means by which the Jewish-Samaritan barrier was broken. He then led the first African to Christ, the Ethiopian eunuch, and baptized him.
The simultaneous conversion and commissioning of Saul the Pharisee (9:1-31) were an indispensable prelude to the Gentile mission, since he was called to be pre-eminently the apostle to the Gentiles.
Cornelius the centurion (10:1-11:18) was the very first Gentile to be converted and welcomed into the church. The gift of the Spirit to him plainly authenticated his inclusion in the Messianic community on the same terms as Jews, and so overcame the narrow Jewish prejudice of the apostle Peter.
Only after these four men had played their part in Luke’s developing story was the scene set for the first missionary journey recorded in Acts 13 and 14.
Luke has already introduced Stephen. As one of the Seven, he was ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (6:3). He himself is then described as ‘full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (6:5), and now he is reintroduced as *a man full of God’s grace and power* (6:8a). Filled with the Spirit, and so filled also with wisdom, faith, grace and power, he evidently gave people an impression of plenitude. ‘Grace and power’ form a striking combination, which Campbell Morgan explains as ‘sweetness and strength… merged in one personality’. Certainly, ‘grace’ seems to indicate a gracious, Christ-like character, while his ‘power’ was seen in the *great wonders and miraculous signs* which he did *among the people* (8b). So far signs and wonders have been credited by Luke only to Jesus (2:22) and the apostles (2:43; 5:12); now for the first time others are said to perform them. Some conclude that Stephen (6:8) and Philip (8:6) were special cases, both because the apostles had laid their hands on them (6:6), thus including them within their own apostolic ministry, and because they occupied a special place in salvation history, in the transition from Jewish movement to world mission. But this cannot be proved. Stephen and Philip are certainly witnesses to the fact that, even if according to Luke signs and wonders were mainly limited to the apostles, this restriction was not absolute.
Yet in spite of all Stephen’s outstanding qualities, his ministry provoked fierce antagonism. We are not yet told why, but it is explained that the *opposition arose…from members of the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)*. Also mentioned are *Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia (9a). The ‘freedmen’ (*libertinoi*, a Greek transliteration of a Latin word) were freed slaves and their descendants. But who were the Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia? Some think that they composed four distinct synagogues, with the freedmen making a fifth. Others think two, three or four synagogues are in mind. But perhaps it is best to understand with the NIV that Luke is referring to only one synagogue (for the word is in the singular). The NEB also takes it in this way, describing the synagogue as ‘comprising’ people from the four main places mentioned. Because they had been freed from slavery, they must have been foreign Jews who had now come to live in Jerusalem. Perhaps those from Cilicia even included Saul of Tarsus. At all events, Stephen’s appointment as one of the Seven, entrusted with the care of the widows, did not necessitate his resignation as a preacher, for it was to his message that these synagogue members objected.
First, *these men began to argue with Stephen (9b). But* they had not reckoned with the calibre of the man they were opposing, for *they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke*(10), meaning perhaps ‘the inspired wisdom with which he spoke’ (NEB). This was a fulfilment of the promise of Jesus, which Luke has recorded, that he would give his followers ‘words and wisdom’ which their adversaries would be unable to resist or contradict (Lk.21:15; cf.12:12).
Secondly, thwarted in open debate, Stephen’s opponents started a smear campaign against him, for when arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent substitute. So *they secretly persuaded some men* – presumably by bribery – to allege ‘*We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God*’ (11). In this way *they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law* (12a).
Thirdly, *they seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin* (12b), and then *produced false witnesses* (13a).
Thus the opposition degenerated from theology through slander to violence. The same order of events has often been repeated. At the first there is serious theological debate. When this fails, people start a personal campaign of lies. Finally, they resort to legal or quasi-legal action in an attempt to rid themselves of their adversary by force. Let others use these weapons against us; may we be delivered from resorting to them ourselves!
After this introduction to Stephen, Luke first clarifies the accusation which was levelled at him (6:13-15), then summarizes the defence he made before the Council (7:1-53), and finally describes the summary sentence which was carried out, in other words his death by stoning (7:54-60).
Tomorrow: Acts 6:13-15. 1). Stephen is accused.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.