A Division in the Church
So far in the experience of the early church, there has been no internal strife. The saints have fulfilled Christ's intent that the church would be a showcase of love (John 13:35). But the devil is always working to stir up hard feelings between brothers in Christ, and at last he found an issue with the potential to tear the church apart.
The church was, as a regular practice, providing "daily ministration" for all the needy widows. This probably refers to financial assistance. Money donated by wealthier members of the church was handed out to the widows each day so that they could buy food and other necessities.
In Bible times, a widow was helpless to support herself. She could not take a job. Unless she was a trained craftsman she could not make anything to sell. So, she was completely dependent on relatives. Since relatives can be stingy, it was common for widows to be extremely poor. Therefore, moved by compassion, the church reached out to help the poor widows in its own midst.
But the devil spotted a cultural division in the church that he could take advantage of. Some of the early Christians in Jerusalem spoke Aramaic and some spoke Greek. The "Greeks" (speakers of Greek) tended to be wealthier and better educated. Those who were giving handouts to the widows probably did not find many in the Greek community who needed help. Yet the Greeks started to complain that the daily handout was neglecting their widows.
The Office of Deacon
To stop criticism, the apostles decided to create a new office in the church, the office of deacon. The men in this position would have responsibility to oversee practical affairs, including the program to help widows. The new office freed the apostles to devote themselves wholly to spiritual ministries, especially prayer and ministry of the Word.
This division of duties into spiritual and temporal created the model for church government ever since. One Baptist distinctive is the conviction that God intended the leadership of a local church to reside in two offices: pastor and deacon. The pastor is the spiritual leader, with the same duties that occupied the original apostles. The deacons are the rulers over all matters of business and administration.
The apostles asked the whole assembly to nominate seven men who satisfied three requirements.
- Since they would handle money, they had to be men "of honest report"—that is, with a reputation for integrity.
- They had to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
- They had to be filled also with wisdom. Wisdom can be defined as native intelligence with a cutting edge honed by thorough knowledge of Scripture.
Every man that the assembly nominated to serve as deacon was a Greek. With the consent of both the apostles and all the other Hebrews in the congregation, none of their own people were placed in the new office. The Hebrews did not demand a majority, or even an equal number. They did not demand any representation at all. We see how much they conceded to preserve unity in the church and shut down destructive criticism.
The seven deacons chosen by the congregation came before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them as a sign of delegated authority. Once the dispute was resolved in a godly manner, God's blessing again rained down upon the church. The church grew rapidly, and among the new members were many priests.
The hearts of many of these priests had perhaps been turned toward Jesus by the great sign seen in the Temple some months before, at the very time when He died on a cross. The veil dividing the outer chamber from the inner chamber, the place of God's presence, was rent in two (Matt. 27:51). Although it is likely that none of the priests at first comprehended the sign, which meant that direct access to God was now possible through Jesus, they could not deny that something strange and supernatural had occurred in connection with His death.
One of the seven new deacons was a man named Stephen, who was outstanding both for wisdom and spirituality. He was so gifted with faith that he was able to perform "great wonders and miracles." As an evangelist, he was among the boldest and most effective within the church.
Stephen did not wait for unbelievers to come wandering into the assembly before he spoke to them about God. Rather, he searched them out in their home territory and confronted them with the truth. He went to the synagogue that was a stronghold of skepticism—the synagogue of the Libertines ("freedmen")—where he found Greek-speaking Jews from all the chief centers of Jewish learning, including Alexandria and Asia. There he boldly presented the claims of Christ.
The leading intellectuals at the synagogue of the Libertines refused to accept Stephen's message and "disputed" with him. In other words, they engaged him in open debate and sought to overturn his arguments. But they could not get the best of him. In seeking to outwit a man of exceptional intellect under the Spirit's control, they had no chance. His success in making them look foolish had a predictable result. They became extremely frustrated and angry, to the point of conspiring against his life.
It is evident that Stephen had taken up his cross and was following Christ (Mark 8:34), for he was suffering the same rejection that Christ suffered. Christ also infuriated His enemies by speaking words that they could not answer (Matt. 22:46). In matters of religion, it is often impossible to convince a man just by giving him good arguments. They may help some people come to the truth, especially those who are dissatisfied with their own world view, or who have a desire to be fair-minded. But many people are closed-minded. Many believe what suits their pride and gives them prestige among the people they value. The Libertines could not accept truth that required them to lower themselves before both God and man—before God, by admitting they were sinners, and before man, by identifying themselves with the despised followers of Jesus.
The Libertines "suborned" (that is, "paid") men to give false witness against Stephen. Then they dragged him before the highest Jewish court, the Sanhedrin (here called "the council"), and stated serious charges against him. With the support of their hired witnesses, they accused him of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs based on the law of Moses.
In a sense the accusations were true. Now that Jesus had died on the cross, the sacrifices in the Temple were no longer necessary. Therefore, the sovereign hand of God would indeed set aside the Mosaic system and replace it with the church. Some years later, in AD 70, God brought a terrible judgment on the nation that rejected His Son. The Jews revolted against Rome, and the Roman legions responded by destroying Jerusalem and its Temple. Without the Temple, the Mosaic system dissolved.
Yet Scripture says that the charges against Stephen were false. They were merely a rehash of the trumped-up charges brought against Jesus. Early in His ministry, His first promise that He would rise from the dead was concealed in the mysterious saying, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). His enemies twisted these words by turning them into a threat that He Himself would destroy the Temple (Matt. 26:59-61). Also, His enemies accused Him of being a law-breaker (John 9:24), although He clearly taught that He came to fulfill the law of Moses, not to destroy it (Matt. 5:17).
When Stephen came before the council, his face shone like an angel's, radiating the very presence of God within him. The high priest asked him whether the charges were true. Under the Jewish system of justice, he was allowed to speak in his own defense. What he said illustrates why he outmatched his enemies in debate. His speech was eloquent, logical, and compelling.
A casual reader easily misses the point. His speech appears on the surface to be no more that a history lesson irrelevant to the charges. But in fact, he was drawing from the history of Israel a multitude of examples to prove his case. As stated in his summation, his case was, "Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye" (v. 51).
In his extended review of the nation's past, he highlighted four examples of its rebellious tendencies. He especially wanted to show that the nation treated Christ in exactly the same way that they had in times past treated every other deliverer sent by God.
- The first deliverer Stephen discussed was Joseph, son of Jacob. Jacob, next in the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, had twelve sons. Stephen called them "the patriarchs," because they were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. The ten eldest hated the eleventh, Joseph, because he was their father's favorite. Out of envy, they sold him to slave traders, who carried him away to Egypt. Yet this brother that they rejected was the one God intended to be their deliverer. Years later, a severe famine struck Egypt and Palestine. Because Joseph had warned Pharaoh of the coming disaster, Pharaoh raised him to second place in the kingdom and given him authority to store up grain for the time of shortage. So, there was grain available in Egypt all through the famine. But since there was none in Palestine, Jacob had no choice but to send his sons into Egypt to buy grain. When Joseph met them, he not only forgave them for their past wickedness, but also brought his father and his whole family into the safety of Egypt. He delivered their lives from death, although his brothers had thrown away his life as worthless.
- The second deliverer in Stephen's history lesson was Moses. When the Egyptians enslaved the nation of Israel, God raised up Moses to save them. But again, the nation rejected the man that God intended as their deliverer. In his youth, Moses killed an Egyptian who was oppressing a fellow Israelite. Instead of rallying behind him, his brothers in Israel scorned his leadership and forced him to flee. Years later, when he returned to Egypt and led out the nation by the power of God, they gave him temporary obedience, but not from the heart. At first opportunity, they returned to the idolatry of Egypt. When he left them for a few days to receive the law of God, they made a golden calf to worship. They continued to resist Moses during the whole time of their wandering in the wilderness.
- Besides rejecting Joseph and Moses, the people of Israel persecuted every one of the prophets that God sent to deliver them from their sinful ways and to announce the future coming of a "Just One."
- The nation shamefully mistreated the "Just One" Himself. When He appeared to them recently, they refused to accept Him as their deliverer from sin. Instead, they betrayed Him and put Him to death. Stephen was, of course, speaking of Jesus.
Stephen concluded his defense by answering the specific charges brought against him.
- The first charge was that he made threats against the Temple. Notice that he did not bother to deny it. He opted rather to make the more important point that the Temple was not as valuable as the Jews thought. He reminded them that God did not dwell in a man-made building, but in heaven. They could not make any house for Him that He had not already made, for He made all things.
- The second charge was that he blasphemed the law of Moses. His reply was, in essence, "What hypocrisy!" It was the nation of Israel that had always blasphemed the law. Throughout most of their history, they preferred the gods of other nations to their own God. They chose to wallow in the wickedness of paganism rather than follow the righteousness of the law. At last God let them be carried into captivity.
The First Martyr
Stephen's powerful words had the same effect on the Sanhedrin as on the synagogue of the Libertines. They brought conviction of sin, but no repentance. The truth was a sharp knife cutting conscience so deeply that the Sanhedrin "gnashed on him with their teeth," showing that to hear him was sheer torment. Yet he drove the knife still deeper. As he looked up to heaven, he reported to them all that he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God.
Now the agony of conviction that he had brought to their souls exploded in anger. With one voice they cried out in protest and together they rushed upon him to drag him away. In their own hearts they justified themselves by viewing the man as the worst of blasphemers. Although it was against the law for the Sanhedrin to execute a man without the permission of the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders were too enraged to consider legal technicalities. They hurried Stephen to a place outside the city, threw him into a pit, and cast stones upon him to kill him.
In his death Stephen gave the crowning proof to all his enemies that he was a man of God, for he showed neither fear nor hatred. He calmly knelt and asked God to receive his spirit. His last words, projected with a loud voice so that all his executioners could hear him, were a petition to God. He asked, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.