Two weeks ago we were introduced to Stephen, who became a leader in the Christian community (the church) in a time when the apostles realized their limitations and need to share their workload with others. He’s a bit like one of those characters you will sometimes see in a TV drama. You know if they suddenly introduce a new character you weren’t expecting, there is a good chance they’ll be killed off. Well, in this story Stephen has just been preaching to the crowds in the same way Peter has been. He’s summarized Jewish history, claimed Jesus was the Messiah who fulfilled all that history’s purpose, and that they were complicit in killing the same
Jesus. Here’s what happened as Stephen concluded:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:51-60 ESV)
What got them so upset?
1) He is extremely direct, with graphic language. He says they have uncircumcised hearts and ears of all things. He’s suggesting they don’t listen, and aren’t open, to what God is all about. He uses the one physical sign of membership in Judaism, as a nation and a religious people, to assert they are really not members after all.
2) He accuses their fathers of the same. In a patriarchal society with a beloved and defining history and family lineage, this is insulting, too. He reminds them of their past mistakes as a people and religion, persecuting the prophets God sent to speak into and correct their ways. Earlier in his speech, he even suggested that God had no interest in their temple, the physical presence of God on earth in their eyes, and this was all too much.
3) He accuses them of persecuting and killing Jesus, and those who announced he was coming. He probably has John the Baptist in mind here, Jesus’ cousin, whose role was to prepare the world for Jesus’ imminent arrival. He says this Jesus was the Righteous One, an allusion to the Messiah, and yet they betrayed and murdered him. Strong words.
4) He hits them in the way that hurts most. His people had received the Law, God’s law given at Mount Sinai on stone tablets through Moses. Why does he say Angels? Angels are primarily described as God’s messengers, and so Stephen makes clear here that God gave them the law as if by personal courier. They signed for the package. This is what they’d say defined them as a nation, and as a religion, that they had and adhered to God’s Law like no one else. And then he accuses them of having failed to keep God’s actual law. This was everything to them, and he said they had failed. Ouch.
And so they flew into a rage, ground their teeth, and stopped their ears before attacking him.
Question: What do these physical descriptions suggest to you? Have you ever heard something so outrageous you reacted similarly?
Meeting with a Group? Your discussion questions are in this week’s Group Study Guide[permalink append=”#comments”]Discuss the Challenge[/permalink]