The In-Between Years - Part 32

Series: The In-Between Years

April 11, 2021
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

The In-Between Years — Part 32

We left off with the wonderful story of how the early church addressed its first conflict. The church was exploding in growth, making a huge impact, and ministering to those on the margins as part of their faith but also as leverage for the gospel. With that success came the inevitable difficulties and conflicts. Certain widows in the daily food distribution were neglected. If you remember, these widows were of a particular ethnic group, Greek-speaking Jews somewhat influenced by Greek and Roman culture, in contrast to the Jews who were more Jewishy, Jews who spoke Aramaic and were less influenced by Greek and Roman culture.

The apostles, the original twelve disciples chosen by Jesus (minus Judas, of course) immediately addressed the problem because the unity of the church was threatened and they highly valued this ministry. So they could vote themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer (their highest priorities), they had the church select seven special men full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to oversee the daily distribution.... 

5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

All of these men were Greek-speaking Jews! The apostles and the church were so wise and humble and loving to do that. Here’s the result… 

7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.  Acts 6:5–7 (ESV)

So the church begins settling in to what appears to be an unending wave of blessing, growth, and kingdom impact. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a part of that. The early church was literally taking over Jerusalem. For heaven’s sake, even the temple priests were being saved!

“Lord Jesus, I ain’t ever leaving this church!”

As amazing as that was, though, it might surprise you to know it was that settling in to kingdom success in Jerusalem which presented another very different problem. To understand why, we have to go back to what is probably the most important verse in Acts. I’ve referred to it countless times in this series, and we are just in chapter six. Jesus was about to ascend back to his Father. He was giving final instructions to the disciples. And he said this…

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Acts 1:8 (ESV)

Of course we know Jesus’ promise of the Spirit was fulfilled in Acts two when the church was born at Pentecost. That divine event started it all. And through Acts 6 we have the incredible account of how the church lived out the next part in a BIG way, being witnesses in Jerusalem (as many as 10,000 of its 40,00 or so inhabitants following Christ). But note that Jesus’ prediction and prescription for the church doesn’t end there. They were also to be witnesses in Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth. In other words, there was three surges of the gospel movement: Jerusalem; Judea and Samaria; the ends of the earth.

By the way, I like to call this God’s witness projection plan. He provides the power, the means to give testimony to a risen Jesus by sending down the Spirit to dwell in his people’s hearts. They use that power to spread the gospel of the kingdom starting where they and then projecting it outwards to the end of the earth. That’s the heart of our ONE FUND missions emphasis.

Back to the matter at hand.

8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Acts 1:8 (ESV)

Do you see the problem? Way back I told you Acts 1:8 is a divine outline for the book. You can divide Luke’s account of the early church into three sections.

1.      The church witnessing in Jerusalem — 2-7

2.      The church witnessing in Judea and Samaria — 8-12

3.      The church witnessing to the ends of the earth — 13-28

They had settled in to the first surge, but there’s no indication they were planning to work on the second or third. We can’t blame them. What happens next with Stephen — as horrible and tragic as it will be — is how God got the second movement going. It will display his glory and sovereignty and providence in a big way. I think maybe that’s why Luke devotes so much to it.


So we are about to see a shift in focus. Be watching for that as we move into chapter 8. Back to our text as we continue in chapter 6…


8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Acts 6:8 (ESV)


We’ve already been introduced to Stephen in verse 5. Luke described him there as full of faith and the holy Spirit. Here he is full of grace and power. And he was actually doing signs and wonders among the people. This just blows my mind. Folks, he was one of the seven chosen to wait on tables. He was called to serve poor widows.


9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. Acts 6:9 (ESV)


So remember how all seven men, those proto-deacons, were Greek-speaking Jews? And how the Greek-speaking Jews were Hebrews who had lived in Roman provinces far away from Jerusalem but had moved there? Mentioned here are Greek-speaking Jews who evidently had their own synagogues, some of them having been former slaves (Freedmen). Luke records they rose up and disputed with Stephen.


Do you know what that most likely means? Not only did Stephen spend a good deal of time delivering food to poor widows and performing signs and wonders, he also found synagogues full of Greek-speaking Jews like himself to preach the gospel in. They were not receptive.


10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Acts 6:10 (ESV)


It wasn’t that Stephen was eloquent, though he may have been. It wasn’t that he was brilliant, though he may have been. It was that he spoke with a wisdom that comes from God’s Spirit. But still, you wonder what did he say? I know it wasn’t just things he came up with on his own. I have no doubt he showed them from the Scriptures (OT) that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the risen Lord. That’s the message Peter and the apostles preached so I know it’s the one he preached.


That’s what they argued with him about, rejecting his claims. But his testimony was so powerful they lost every debate. What’s the classic move of those who hate the message? Attack the messenger using whatever means necessary.


11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” Acts 6:11–14 (ESV)


They attacked him by making up accusations, accusations that would ensure he was arrested and brought before — you guessed it — the Sanhedrin, that council of Jewish elders and religious leaders we’ve gotten to know pretty well.


Stephen preached Jesus, and these angry Jews twisted the words of Jesus to us against him.


First, they accused Jesus of wanting to destroy the temple. Jesus never claimed he’d destroy the temple. Here’s what he actually said…


1 And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” 2 And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  Mark 13:1–2 (ESV)


He predicted the temple’s destruction; he wasn’t saying he would actually do it himself. That happened forty years later when the Romans squashed the Jews rebellion by tearing down the temple brick by brick.


Or maybe they even referred to this…

19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body.  John 2:1921 (ESV)


Second, they accused him of changing the customs delivered by Moses. They may have had the Law in mind. Jesus clashed with the Pharisees over many things pertaining to the Law, particularly the Sabbath. It wasn’t that he didn’t uphold God’s Law — he was God in the flesh — it was their interpretation of it and the way they didn’t really live by it that he had a problem with.


Jesus never proposed to overturn the Law but fulfill it…


17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  Matthew 5:17 (ESV)


One Bible scholar summarizes this situation well…


…any first-century Jew could have told you, there were certain key things, certain symbols of what it meant to be God’s people in the midst of a wicked pagan world, and it was absolutely vital that all Jews stuck by them come what may. And anyone who started saying anything different was immediately pounced upon and accused of straightforwardly denying what all good Jews knew perfectly well they ought to be affirming.

There were… four key symbols of Judaism in the period. There was the Temple itself; the law (‘Torah’ in Hebrew); the holy land, focused on Jerusalem and the Temple; and the national ethnic identity, the family of all Jews … And, behind all this, and assumed to be involved in it all, was the question of God himself. At a time when the swirling, [multi-faceted] world of ancient paganism was all around …, all loyal Jews knew they had to stick by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and not to have any truck with compromise, with fancy new ideas which could and would only lead to following idols, blaspheming nonsenses. So, whenever Stephen spoke, out came the accusations: you’re undermining the law of Moses! You’re speaking against the Temple! And, behind it all, ‘You’re blaspheming God!’[1]

Isn’t it ironic that the people who were given the Law of God so easily broke it?


16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  Exodus 20:16 (ESV)


It’s been said before and it’s true: you become what you hate.


As the old saying goes, “A lie travels half way around the world before the truth even gets its boots on.” The lies against Stephen built steam quickly, and the whole mess was about to boil over. But for one brief moment, something gave the council pause…


15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  Acts 6:15 (ESV)


What does it mean he had the face of an angel? Today we use that very phrase. I use it, mostly referring to my granddaughter. She looks like an angel! I guess we assume angels are super attractive. That’s not what it meant for ancient Jews. Angels were associated with the divine. They shined with glory. Whether they meant Stephen shined literally or metaphorically I don’t know, but that same scholar I just quoted writes, “perhaps what we are meant to understand is that there was a kind of light, illuminating Stephen from the inside. A kind of serenity, humble and unostentatious, but confident and assured.”[2]


In the middle of all the ruckus, as he was being attacked and lied against, as all hell broke loose around him, Stephen sat there in perfect peace. It did not go unnoticed by those watching him.


Conclusion: It’s no accident this angelic appearance incident occurred when Stephen was suffering persecution. We’ve already talked a lot about that being a given in the Christian life, a cause for celebration even. We’re going to talk about it more as we move on. It will be a while though. Before we see what happens to the man who had the face of an angel, we’ll walk through his message to the council, the longest sermon recorded in all of the NT. We’ll start that next time.


Before we close I can’t help but think about Jesus warning his disciples of what they could expect if they followed him. It was very likely on Stephen’s mind. Listen to what Jesus said in Luke’s first volume…


10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.  Luke 21:10–19 (ESV)


13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  Romans 10:13 (ESV)


[1] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (pp. 103–104). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[2] Wright, T. (2008). Acts for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-12 (p. 106). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

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