Lecture 10: Acts 6:8 - 8:4
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Stephen was performing signs and wonders and presenting the Gospel in a way that people could not refute, because of the power of the Spirit. Some Jews instigated false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy. He preached a sermon ending with saying that the Jews betrayed the Law God gave them by killing the prophets and Jesus. This made people in the crowd angry and they stoned him. Saul supported the stoning and also persecuted other followers of Jesus.
Lecture 10: Acts Chapters 6:8-8:4
1. Chapter 6:8-7:1
a. Synagogue of the Libertine
Stephen is arrested and taken before the authorities. In 6:9 we read that the conflict is initially with synagogue of the freed persons. Synagogues were community centers; they were also used for places of communal prayer and the study of the Torah. This has been reported in later Jewish texts, Josephus and Philo’s writings from the 1st century. We also have some excavated synagogues from the period. The terms freed persons is a Greek transliteration of the Latin Libertine. These were freed persons in the Roman sense; they were Roman citizens. If you were a slave of a Roman citizen, under certain conditions you could be freed and you would become a Roman citizen. Well, thousands of Judeans were enslaved by the Roman general Pompeii. They were enslaved by Pompeii in the 1st century BC, brought to Rome and then the Jews in Rome bought the freedom of these enslaved Jews. They then became freed people and Roman citizens. Philo tells us that a number of Jews living in Rome were Roman citizens. They were descended from the free slaves. Some of them returned to Jerusalem and some settled in other places. So we have a synagogue of these freed persons in Jerusalem. This would be a fairly high status synagogue among Hellenist synagogues because they were Roman citizens which even many of the officials in the Greek part of the empire didn’t have. There is a synagogue inscription that has been found of a synagogue from Jerusalem. It is a synagogue dedicated by a person named Theophilus, son of the Kenos which is a Latin name. He was the son of a Jewish Roman citizen; it might even be the same synagogue being talked about here. It had nice facilities with baths, etc. The synagogue in verse 9 is a Hellenist synagogue and related to the same group as the widows in 6:1 came from. Apparently, some members of the Hellenist community who had not become believers were very unhappy about other members who were believers. This became even more true as Stephen defeated them in debate after debate as he was full of the Spirit and wisdom and even doing signs and wonders that they couldn’t refute. It was just like Jesus said in Luke 21; I will give you the wisdom that none of your adversaries can refute.
I remember years ago, having some very supportive professors, yet there were other professors that I had a lot of debates with, of which one, we would sit for hours in his office debating. The first time it happened, I thought that if you were going to argue this, then how about this. But he didn’t play fair in terms of the rules of debate. I became ashamed of myself; I could have given a better argument than this. But the way he twisted my words didn’t sound as if was the case. So, I began to pray that God would give me wisdom that nobody could refute. I don’t like debates, but we would sit for hours in his office. After I began praying, he became the one acting very nervous. One day after having given him lines of evidence, he would say that he didn’t accept that kind of evidence. Finally, I said that if someone was raised from the dead in front of you, would you believe? And he answers, no! So, you are telling me that I am close minded because I am a Christian; even though I was an atheist and then converted to Christianity through an encounter with Christ. You are saying that I’m close minded, but you wouldn’t believe if somebody rose from the dead in front of you? Some people are more skilled with this than other; sometimes the Holy Spirit gives us wisdom in situations like this, however my gift usually works out in my writing.
b. False Witness
In any case, for Stephen, he was full of the Spirit and wisdom. He was doing signs and wonders and they couldn’t refute this. Why were they so angry? This had become an internal issue in their community and many had become divided over this. Also, they may have been compensating for them being foreigners. In reading Josephus, he says that Agrippa I and reading Acts 12, he seemed to have tried to compensate for the fact that he wasn’t from Jerusalem; he wasn’t from Judea at all, having spent most of his life in Rome by trying to identify by the most conservative faction he could of the Jewish community. He was fueling Judean nationalism in so doing that. Now for the Pharisees, those of the synagogue of freed people ranked as 1st generation freed slaved just below proselytes. They said that if you were born of a slave mother, we don’t know whether or not your father was Jewish. We don’t know how many of them were 1st generation freed slaves and how many of them were descendants of freed slaves. The locations were mentioned as to where these people came from including Alexandria, Cilicia and Cyrenian. Later, we have sources that attest to a synagogue of Alexandrians and a synagogue of Cilicians; there were large Jewish communities in both places. Alexandria probably had the largest Jewish community outside of Judea and Galilee. But Cilicia is very important in mentioning the different places these people came from. The capital of Cilicia was Tarsus and pretty much everybody in antiquity that knew anything, knew this. Somebody who was probably a member of this synagogue was Saul of Tarsus and we get more clues of this as we delve further into the Book of Acts. But those freed in Rome often made their way eastward and probably constitute those of the synagogue. It seems that some of them got some false witnesses and in Acts 6:11-15, they charged Stephen with blasphemy. In the most technical way this term was used later on by rabbis; to be true blasphemy, he had to abuse the divine name.
However, the Greek word blasphemos and these people would be speakers of Greek. So the nontechnical use of the word can mean any kind of reviling or mocking used with God would mean disrespect for God. So, if you don’t go along with our traditions, you are blaspheming God. Ironically, the prototypical way of desecrating a divine name was to swear a false oath. You called a deity to witness or in this case, the God of Israel as a witness and what you were saying, this God has seen that I’m telling the truth. So, if I am not telling the truth, that god will defend his or her honor by punishing me. Well, most people didn’t want to swear a false oath; anyone that would do that didn’t have a very high respect for the deity. This is the irony, they accused Stephen of Blaspheming the divine name, but these are false witnesses and so this makes them the blasphemers. They gave false testimony under oath and thereby desecrate the name of God. There was an actual pre-Christian rhetorical manual available although it probably wasn’t widely used. In the rhetorician Alexandrian, it was sometimes falsely attributed to Aristotle, one of the techniques that it addresses in detail is how to lie under oath and be persuasive. This was in a period when rhetoric or profession public speaking wasn’t concerned about the morality of it. It was a matter of winning. You were defending a client and so you had to win your case. So, they taught them how to lie under oath, obviously not pious or God fearing. Now, according to the Torah, Deuteronomy 19:18-19 and also according to Roman law, false witnesses in a capital case were executed. These false witnesses obviously received a good bribe.
c. Blasphemy Charges
What are the charges against Stephen? He has spoken against the Law and thus against God and against the temple. They said that he was speaking against this holy place. Not only was this a religious issue, but it could stir up nationalistic compassion; so it was also a nationalistic issue. It was something that was very closely intertwined. Some people have talked about God and country; their nationalism gets bound up with their religious commitment. Like in World War I, you had countries that claimed to be Christian, yet it was nationalism that drove the war and it had disastrous effects. You have this also in countries with ethnic loyalties. My wife was a refugee in a civil war in a country where eighty nine percent of the people claimed to be Christian, yet you had one ethnic group fighting against another. Obviously not all the people were genuine Christians and others were put into situations where they had to defend themselves and there were also non-combatants that were caught up in the war. So, sometimes nationalism drives things also. In this country, if someone talks about God bringing judgement on the country, nationalism is such that people react against it. So, a person I knew by the name of Jeremiah Wright who pronounced judgement on the country because of its oppression of the poor and its racism. He was speaking from the political left and he was denounced. Pat Robison, a person speaking from the right about abortion and other things and said that judgement was coming and he was denounced as well. Well, it looks to me like, whether you denounce it from the right or from the left, if you say judgement is coming on America; this upsets a lot of Americans. If you were a member of a congregation and somebody said that, they might use it against you some day. So, probably, you don’t want me to say that judgement is coming on this nation if you happen to live in this nation. You might get into trouble for listening to what I said. But, in any case, the Bible tells us that the Lord rises up to judge all the nations on the earth. No nation is perfectly virtuous. But in this case, it was both nationalistic and a religious issue, simply because they thought that they were God’s people; you can’t be pronouncing judgement in the temple. Remember that the prophet Jeramiah got into a lot of trouble for pronouncing judgement in the temple.
In Jeremiah 7, it said, you treat this temple like a den of thieves, a text that Jesus quotes in Luke 19. It is like a den of robbers because they thought that it was a safe place for them. Jeremiah referred to these deceptive words, speaking of the temple of the Lord. God wouldn’t judge his own house, but God says that he will do to this house what he did to Shiloh, declares the Lord; a place where the Tabernacle was had even been destroyed. In any case, the Ark was captured in battle and Shiloh along with the Tabernacle was destroyed. Prophesizing against the temple led to punishment. Jeremiah was put in the stocks and beaten. In the 1st century it was also punished. A prophet by the name of Joshua Ben Hananiah, a generation after this; we don’t know if he was a Christian or not, but he rightly said that judgement was coming on the temple. This defied the chief priests honor; they had him arrested and handed over to the Romans; the governor had him beaten until you could see his bones. This was according to Josephus. He was then released because they thought that he was insane; they didn’t think that he was a further threat and he didn’t have a following as most people didn’t believe him. But prophesizing against the temple could be punished. He saw what happened to Jesus when he over-turned the tables in the temple. Speaking against the Law in the temple were punishable offensives. But Stephen affirmed the law and doesn’t even answer the charges directly. He cites the laws all the time and shows that he upheld the law. In fact, at the end, he turned the charges back to his accusers by claiming that they caused the death of the prophets and resisted the Holy Spirit. He calls them stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, which means that they were the ones not keeping the law. We see the Christians worshipping in the temple, they weren’t against the temple as such, but Stephen did challenge the temple in a way that even the apostles would have been uncomfortable with. The future didn’t rely with Jerusalem or with the temple with the immediate time. They saw Nathan’s face become like an angel and sometimes you can see people as if they are glowing with glory of the Lord. This is probably evoking Luke 9, the transfiguration when Jesus is glowing with glory.
The Old Testament model for this is when Moses was transfigured. Those who knew the Torah would be familiar with the account of Moses being transfigured. Moses also received the Law via angels. Stephen is going to refer to Moses and the burning bush where the angel spoke to him. In verse 53, the law was given through the angels and they are with God’s servants elsewhere in the Book of Acts. An angel has just freed them from prison in chapter 5, verse 19. Chapter 8 and verse 26, an angel is going to send Philip on his way to bring the Good News to the African court official. Chapter 10 and verse 3 an angel appears to Cornelius and in chapter 12, the angel is going to release Peter from detention, from custody and also later on the chapter, an angel of the Lord is going to strike Herod Agrippa dead for receiving divine honor as if he was divine. So, angels are at play in the narrative, but here Stephen looks to them like an angel. It is probably not a transfiguration on the same level you have in Luke chapter 9, but it gets their attention and it is something they can’t refute.
2. Chapters 7:2 – 8:4
The two charges against him say that he is against the Law of Moses and against the Temple. He gives two major responses to this. First of all, he talks about the temple by showing that God is not really limited to the Temple; he is clarifying what he is actually saying. And then he is going to return the charges which were standard practice in antiquity. If somebody charges you with something; if you were at all able to, you would charge them with the same offense. There was one orator who said that his client had been beaten by the accusers and they have the audacity to charge him because he is alive, which isn’t his fault. Cicero was a master at this and he could be venomous. This one woman who was part of the prosecution witnesses; Cicero says, the reason she was widow was because she was the one who killed her husband. So, he was just venomous when he spoke. Stephen starts out by saying, ‘you climaxed the rebellion of our ancestors. They rejected Joseph who was sent to be a deliverer; they also rejected Moses who was sent also to be the deliverer.’ Moses said that God would raise up a prophet like him; well, God has done that and guess what? One of the ways that he would be like Moses, he would be rejected, and as you killed the prophets; now you, the descendants of those who killed the prophets, you have killed the holly and righteous one. You can see why he gets stoned at the end. When I first read Acts 7, I thought that they stoned him because of a boring history lesson. But no, he was giving them a warning. Jewish people would often refer to history as seen in many Jewish documents; you would have something about the history of Israel. Some of the Psalms do that; you have a recounting of different people through history. You have this in the Book of Sirach and also in some Maccabean literature. You have that in Hebrews chapter 11 which was exquisitely designed, rhetorically. Stephen does that here but it was history with a point. History in antiquity, as we mentioned, was meant to be told with a point. So Stephen is doing what Luke is doing in his two volume work with the history of Jesus and the history of the early Christian mission. Luke parallels different characters like Jesus, Peter, Paul and even Stephen with the execution of Jesus. He isn’t doing this by making up things, he is doing it the same way that Stephen does it here and the Old Testament, linking different characters and showing common features and how God worked in history. He is highlighting certain parallels that are there and seeing how Stephen does it, this gives us a clue to Luke’s own hermeneutic.
b. Stephen’s Message
Abraham is addressed in verses 2 to 8. And we learn that God speaks in different places, like Mesopotamia for Abraham. In verses 9-16, God spoke to Joseph where he was exalted in Egypt after being rejected by his own brothers. Moses was not only exalted outside of the Holy Land, but when Moses worships God in Mount Sinai; we see Stephen quoting that language of the Old Testament. God told Moses to take his sandals off for this place is holy. Why is this significant? Stephen was charged with blasphemy against this holy place. So now Stephen responds, ‘the temple is not the only holly place.’ A mountain in the midst of the Arabian desert can be a holy place; any place where God is, is a holy place and so it is God’s presence that matters; it is the Holy Spirit that matters, it isn’t just at a holy site. What really made a place most holy was the sanctification of God’s presence. That is probably the reason why Canaanites would rebuild a holy place on the same site of a former holy place. But when the Israelites came in, they destroyed the people’s temples and holy places and their idols because Israel’s God was different and God’s holy place would be different. Moses was rejected by his brothers and the holy place of Moses was outside the Holy Land. Even though we read the Jewish tradition that God only spoke in the Holy Land; well, what about Ezekiel? God spoke to Ezekiel by the River Chebar; God can speak outside the Holy Land in certain conditions. So, they explained everything away by exceptions and when you have too many exceptions, there is probably something wrong with your rule. This was a nationalistic tradition. So, after talking about Moses, Stephen goes on to say that their ancestors rebelled against Moses; Stephen is identifying with Moses and the prophets. They are identified with the other side in Israel’s history.
c. Parallel’s in Their Ancestors – Verses 38-50
He goes on to talk about Abraham, Joseph and Moses first before some of the more controversial points which cause him to get stoned. So, he charges his accusers in verses 51-53 and that is when they cut him off. For the parallels in history that he makes, some of these parallels that had already existed in the Torah, in the Pentateuch. Between Joseph and Moses, it isn’t surprising that Stephen would link figures in history because you already have some these links between the end of Genesis and the early part of Exodus. These stories were told together; Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; Moses’ family who were slaves saved him from slavery. The Midianites sold Joseph into Egypt, but they welcomed Moses when he fled Egypt. Joseph became Pharaoh’s father, which was actually a title that was sometimes used by Egyptians of antiquity. Moses became a son to a Pharaoh’s daughter. Joseph was exalted from slavery and made a prince over Egypt, but he abruptly lost his royalty by defending slaves. Joseph made the Hebrew nation, Pharaoh’s slaves but through Moses, God freed those slaves. Through Joseph, God delivered Egypt during the famine but through Moses, God devastated Egypt’s economy. Joseph’s excelled in Egypt and married a daughter of an Egyptian priest. Moses having been exiled from Egypt married the daughter of a Midianite priest. The name of Joseph’s first son evokes Joseph’s sojourn in a foreign land. The name of Moses’ first son evokes Moses sojourn in a foreign land. The future delivers leadership in the case of Moses was initially rejected by his brothers who sold him into slavery. The future delivered leadership in the case of Moses was initially rejected by his brothers when they said, ‘who made you a ruler or judge over us?’ What Stephen is doing with the Old Testament is following a pattern that has already been established in the Old Testament, including the pattern of the rejected deliverer which he is going to be highlighted in these different cases. The judge, the high priest, the officiating leader of the Sanhedrin offers Stephen the opportunity to deny the charge. That’s a merciful thing to do, but Stephen continues to build his case taking certain liberties in following the Old Testament. These were far less liberties that were normally taken by Jewish teachers as he retells these stories.
You already see that kind of patterning with these parallels that Stephen is following. The fact that he spent so much time in the Pentateuch was because the Sadducees especially liked the Pentateuch. In fact Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher, basically, usually kept things to the Pentateuch. So, in regards to these liberties, he usually followed the Septuagint, the most common Greek version of the Old Testament in his day. He summarizes because he is not going to be speaking for hours as he probably knew that he didn’t have much time. Occasionally, he telescopes events and blends them together. Most of his speech is just Biblical quotations from the Septuagint. Occasionally, he provides an inference like Moses’ Egyptian education of the wisdom and learning of the Egyptians. That is what you would expect if Moses was a member of the royal court just like Daniel without being a member of the royal court. However, what Stephen is saying, lacks most of the legendary embellishments that you would find even in Josephus, the Jewish historian. That Moses went and fought Ethiopia; that is where he got his Ethiopian wife; we have a lot of legends about Moses and Artepanus of Alexandria, a Jewish historian says that Moses was commander of the Egyptian forces against the Ethiopians. Stephen doesn’t waste time with those kinds of embellishments. He stays pretty much to the text.
d. Background Observations
In regards to background observations for Acts 7:25 which talks about deliverance through Moses. The Greek word here is soteria for the word delivering within the sentence. It is the same word used in chapter 4 and verse 12 where Peter and John say there is salvation through no one other than the name of Jesus. So soteria is translated salvation here. God had granted deliverance before, not on the same level as Jesus, but through Joseph in Egypt and then through Moses and yet, these were rejected deliverers. So, why do you think, just because our leaders rejected Jesus, that it means that Jesus isn’t the Messiah? It fits the pattern and also fits Isaiah 53; this gets quoted clearer in the next chapter. In chapter 7:29 he mentioned Moses’ interethnic marriage. Moses marries a Nubian and crosses cultures with this marriage which is mentioned in Numbers 12. The Nubians were particularly known as a Cushite in Hebrew. They were known for their darker skin, however some people to the far north were known for their whiter skin. No matter where they were on the spectrum, they all considered themselves as normal. We find this everywhere in ancient literature. Joseph also had an interethnic marriage as we saw. So this begins to push beyond the culture as it was something highly despised by the conservative Jewish community. You weren’t supposed to marry a non-Jew. This comes from Deuteronomy where you were not to enter marriage with people with different gods. This wasn’t an ethnic issue as such. So as Stephen continues in 7:35-38 where in Greek the term translated as ‘this one’ comes five times. This one, this one; it drives home the point. It was used in rhetoric for emphasis to make a point. This rejected deliver, this one whom you rejected. In 7:41 he talks about the calf idol they had made from gold. Both Greeks and Romans despised Egyptians for worshipping animal figures and part animal figures, like Anubis who had a human body and a Canine head. So, you know that Jewish people would not be happy with it either. This was often considered the most embarrassing episode in all of Israel’s history. Jewish people were ashamed of it, later rabbis tried to explain it away as well. It was the foreigners who came among us who really led the way in all of this. It was their fault. So Israel was ashamed of this, so much so that Josephus actually omits the scene.
In Acts 7:42, he talks about how they worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars. Greeks thought that the sun, moon and the stars were gods. Jewish people normally thought that they were angels. Astrology was highly respected during this era. In fact, it was so respected that by the time you get to the 6th century, a number of synagogues had a mosaic of the zodiac with a picture of Helios, the sun god in the middle. It was meant to symbolize that God was over the sun and over all the stars, but the imagery that they used; Josephus and Philo compared certain things in the temple to the constellations. Astrological symbolism was pervasive by this period. Rulers were paranoid about astrologers predicting their deaths and stirring unrest. This spread from Babylonia and Parthia and was considered the science of the day. So, gentiles followed this increasingly more and more as time went by. Jewish people often would say that stars don’t control the future and they don’t control our future. So this would again be something that they would not appreciate being reminded of. Then he speaks of houses made with human hands; this language was already used back in verse 41. It was often used by Jewish people for idols. Idols aren’t real gods, they aren’t the god that made us; they are gods that are made by people, made by human hands. Now, he uses that language to describe the temple. But he isn’t just making this up; he’s has biblical precedence for it. In verses 49 and 50, he quotes the Book of Isaiah. Often, an argument would conclude with a maxim or in this case, a Scripture text. He has been talking about the temple and now he has his text about the temple in Isaiah 66:1-2. This doesn’t come from the time of the tabernacle when God had earlier told David not to build a house for him. Although Stephen mentions that as well; but Isaiah 66:1-2, heaven is my throne, earth is my foot stool, what house will you build me? So, in a sense, he confirms their suspicion that he is against the temple, but he is not against using the temple. He is against centralizing the worship of God only to the temple in a way that God isn’t working elsewhere.
And now with the coming of the Messiah, the Law is going to go forth from Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, God chose Jerusalem as his place of worship. But now, the message is to go forth, not centered in one place. Stephen had the correct theological vision; he lays the theological groundwork but he doesn’t live to see it. This groundwork is developed in the remainder of the Book of Acts and carried out by a person who was responsible for Stephen’s execution. In 51-53, Stephen had come to the climax of his speech; now he gives his peroration, the closing. This was often the most arousing part of a speech. He returns charges to his accusers; he didn’t do this earlier, but he has been building up to it. So, it was customary to return charges to your accusers but not to return charges to your judges. If you do this, you know what is going to happen. A Stoic philosopher by the name of Epictetus who complains about this one person; you know that you don’t have to make trouble for yourself. The guy goes before the court and says ‘I’m like Socrates and you are like Socrates’ judges.’ Of course the judges condemned him and Epictetus says that wasn’t being bold, that was being stupid. In Stephen’s case, I don’t think he is being stupid, but he does know what is coming. So, he returns the charges against the judges. In verse 51, he condemns them and so condemns himself, ‘you stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit as your fathers did.’ These terms often appear with regards to Israel; this was prophetic language in the Old Testament. They appear together in Deuteronomy 10:16 where Israel in Moses’ day was stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart. ‘Your ancestors persecuted the prophets; this can be seen in 1 Kings 18:4 in Elijah’s day where Jezebel had murdered many of the prophets. Nehemiah 9:26 also gives a summary of how their ancestors killed the prophets. In Jeramiah 26:20-23, we have one of the names, Uriah the prophet who was killed but yet, Jeramiah survives, but not all prophets did. Uriah was a true prophet and he fled to Egypt and they brought him back and put him to death. And Jeramiah was in real risk in being put to death also, but God protected him.
So, Jewish tradition had developed this even further. For example, it was said that Isaiah was hidden in a tree where it had opened and protected him. But Manasseh knew that he was in a tree because the fringe of his prayer shawl was hanging out. So Manasseh had the tree sawed in half and killed Isaiah that way. This story is also seen in another Jewish work, the Lives of the Prophets. This tradition had been amplified, the killing of the prophets by their Jewish ancestors, and they weren’t going to deny this as it was in scripture as being part of the history of Israel. Another tradition as mentioned in verse 53, something they couldn’t deny. The Law was mediated through angels. He said, ‘you received this law mediated by angels.’ This was meant in a way to exalt the Law; the same as in Hebrews 2 and then in Galatians 3 but not as direct. They spoke to Moses from the bush. Deuteronomy 32 refers to the presence of other angels and Mount Sinai along with possibly Psalm 68. It was certainly interpreted this way by Jewish people when read on the Day of Pentecost. He cites this tradition, the Law was given through angels, ‘yet you have rejected it; you have disobeyed the Law.’ As we mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit was especially associated with the prophets with the speaking of prophetic messages. Stephen said to them that their ancestors killed the prophets and you climaxed that by killing the Holy and Righteous One. You always resist the Holy Spirit. They are still resisting the Holy Spirit. Stephen is speaking to them just like an Old Testament prophet, and he knows what is coming.
e. The Stoning of Stephen
They have killed the prophets of old, they killed the Messiah and they are going to do it to him also. They prove his criticism by killing him. We see parallels with Stephen’s death with Jesus in Acts 7:54-60. In Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus declared that he was the exalted Son of Man. For Stephen, he declares that he sees the exalted Son of Man. Earlier they saw Stephen as an angel and Stephen sees Jesus in heaven. Jesus in Luke 23:46 says, ‘Father into your hands I commit my Spirit.’ In Acts 7:59, Stephen says, ‘Lord, I commit my Spirit to you.’ In Luke 23:34, Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ In Acts 7:60, Stephen asked the Lord not to hold this sin against them. Remember what we said earlier about parallel biographies and also remember that the disciples imitate teachers. As Jesus did this, Stephen would want to do this in his death also. We see something else in this narrative and that’s the ironic way that Luke narrates it. Who is really guilty? Jesus is standing in heaven in verse 56. Normally you would have expected him to be seated at the Father right hand as it says in Acts 2. But a witness or a judge could stand; Jesus is either Stephen’s witness or Jesus is portrayed as the true judge. And it is Stephen’s accusers who are really on trial. Normally, a person who was going to be executed should be stripped and perhaps they did this to Stephen. Luke mentions something else instead; they stripped themselves. Well, normally Hellenists would strip for exercise. You see the same time with Paul’s accusers in Acts 22 when they are throwing their cloaks in the air. An executed person was to confess their sins, but in verse 60 Stephen confesses their sins, instead. Sometimes, ancient writers would say explicitly that unjust judges were the ones really on trial before the truth and before God. Gentiles often said that with Socrates, he wasn’t the one on trial, it was his accusers. Since they were trying the truth, they were the ones condemned.
They dragged him outside the city where they normally took people. The Mishnah had not been written as of yet, but it reflects rules that go back this far, they may have followed these rules. Then again, since it was an angry mob of people, they probably weren’t thinking too much about rules. The Sadducees and Hellenists wouldn’t be concerned with Pharisaic regulations in any case. This may give us a sense in how it would have been done. Normally, you would throw the person over a cliff or a large hill. The fall may not be enough to kill them but sometimes it was. Then ideally you would have large stones that were used to throw at the person. They would keep throwing the stones until the person died. According to Deuteronomy 17:7, the witnesses would be the first to throw the stones; this was probably meant to be a deterrent against false witnesses because you knew that you had to kill the person yourself. But the false witnesses for Stephen went ahead and threw the stones. The governor was only in Jerusalem during festivals and we do know that mobs did stone people. This happens throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The stoning is significant here for other reasons; according to Leviticus 24:16 stoning was a penalty for blasphemy. But also in the Old Testament, we see that a number of times people sought to stone God’s servants as shown in Exodus 17 and Numbers 14. This was where people were ready to stone Moses and even Joshua and Caleb. In 2 Chronicles 24 Zechariah was stoned. In 2 Samuel David’s own men almost were ready to stone him, although the circumstances were somewhat different as it was because of their own anguish over their families. Saul is a young man and they lay their robes at Saul’s feet. Keep in mind the contrast here; earlier people brought their resources and laid them at the feet of the apostles. But with Stephen at his stoning, Saul was sort of in charge. The terminology used here for a young man could be used for anybody from their teens up to their 30’s. Most often it was used for somebody in their twenties. So he is probably no longer a student of Gamaliel at this point. Most people finish their tertiary education before they were twenty, although there were exceptions. However, he would have still been within Gamaliel’s circles.
Being a young man as shown throughout ancient writings was associated with strength but also rashness and susceptibility to sexual temptation. That is why 2 Timothy talks about fleeing youthful lust and 1 Timothy 4 says not to let others despise their youth, but be an example of Godliness. Young men also had problems with anger. There is some truth when you are an adolescent and your hormones are changing; sometimes you have that. But you also can have a strength and zeal that can be devoted to God. For Saul, it wasn’t being used in the correct way. Galatians 1 tells us that Paul was advancing beyond many of his age peers. This is how the wording in Greek should be understood. So, even though he was a young man, in his zeal and proficiency in the Torah, he had become a leader. His family would have likely had money since they had Roman citizenship. This also shows by his studies under Gamaliel. In any case, he was a leader in stirring up persecution toward the Christians. This was one of the ways that he was excelling. It says in 9:31 after he had become a Christian, the church had rest as Saul had been a major orchestrator of persecution, but he wasn’t the only person that did this, there were others. In Acts 6 and verse 5 we see Stephen being introduced and then Philip and others. Acts 7 addresses Stephen who lays the theological groundwork for this movement. Acts 8 addresses Philip.
f. Chapter 8 Outline
We have Saul in 7:58-60 and also in 8:1-4. Through Saul, persecution scatters the believers which is in itself irony. He is trying to stop the movement, but persecution scatters and spreads it. So, ironically, Saul is responsible for spreading the movement even before he becomes a follower of Jesus. Acts 8:5-25 narrates Philip’s ministry in Samaria and Acts 8:26-40 narrates his ministry to an African Court Official. Why would God lead him to one person when he had a ministry to so many people in Samaria? This is a foretaste of going to the ends of the earth. We don’t always know but God knows. Ethiopia was considered the southernmost end of the earth. So, this gives us a foretaste of where the mission is going. There is a careful structuring in a literary sense in Acts 8. In Acts 8:4, it says that those who were scattered preached and proclaimed Christ where ever they went. In Acts 8:5, Philip preached in Samaria and then in Acts 8:25 Peter and John preached the News in villages of Samaria on their way back to Jerusalem. We have the next section with the African Court Official and in Acts 8:40; Philip is carried away and continues to preach the Good News along coastal towns on his way to Caesarea. In Acts 8:1-4, it took persecution to get the church to do what Jesus had commanded them back in Acts 1:8. So, we see that God can use things that look to us as a disaster to spread the Gospel to people who don’t have it. Sometimes people are more likely to listen to us when they know that we have been through the same and they have been through. They often see our integrity through suffering.
Those who suffer for Christ are often those who count the cost more radically. You see this with the seven churches in Asia Minor in the Book of Revelation. The two persecuted churches in Philadelphia and Smyrna are the ones who aren’t reproved by the Lord. The other churches, one of them Pergamum has at least a little persecution. But most of these other churches are compromising with the values of the world system. You often see this today with those who suffer for Christ; for there are places in the world where the church is suffering for Christ. In those places, the church is often more committed. Stephen’s burial in Acts 8:2; dying and being buried was a great dishonor and risking one’s life to bury people was considered honorable and heroic. You have this Jewish person named Tobic who was burying people against the king’s decree and Tobias his son buried his father when he died. So, adult sons closest to the deceased would bury the person. Public mourning however for condemned criminals was prohibited, but these pious people got together and ignored the illegal ruling and they mourned for him. In Acts 8:3, we read about Saul dragging off both men and women and putting them in prison. Then in Acts 8:4, as the church is scattered, the believers take the message with them where ever they go. Most ancient religions were spread by travelers. Some places had something like missionaries but for the most part, it was just people as they travelled; they took the message with them. Sometimes it was a merchant who would start a temple somewhere. The focus in the Book of Acts is on the apostles, but we have clues like this to show us that it wasn’t just the apostles; it was all the believers. The apostles were leading this, but they stayed in Jerusalem. Most of the other believers were scattered and that would also include the Hellenists; Stephen’s peers.
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