Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.
If Stephen was set apart to do admin, why was he doing miracles?
The Apostles specifically set apart seven men to take over the administraitive chore of distributing food to those in need. They were identified, prayed over, and given their duty. But Stephen gets into trouble for something completely different, something that appears to be at least as great as the main Apostles were doing – he “did great wonders and signs among the people”.
Thing is, God never calls us to just one thing. I know this from personal experience; God doesn’t always narrow our focus to one thing, but sometimes broadens our horizons even further. Just because Stephen was called to “wait on tables”, it didn’t stop him from ministering in other capacities too. In the same way, we shouldn’t imagine that our ministry is only ever in one direction or context. We are complex and complicated people, with lives that are multifaceted. To use Paul’s imagery from one of his letters, being a hand doesn’t stop you being a foot as well.
Why did Stephen get picked on?
It doesn’t sound like Stephen was doing anything more than the other Apostles were, so why did he attract attention? Was he an easy target? Was he a loose cannon? Did they feel more threatened by Stephen than of the others?
In the text, this comes almost immediately after Gamaliel convinced the Jewish leaders to leave the Christians alone. But these aren’t the same Jewish leaders; these are from the synagogue of Freedmen (whatever that is), so presumably hadn’t benefitted from Gamaliel’s wisdom. They were still bent on silencing these Christians. I wonder whether perhaps going for the absolute ring leaders (the Twelve Apostles) would have been a bad move, given how popular they were in the wider community, but this Stephen was a little less high-profile. Maybe they thought that attacking from the side would work better than from the front. Just an idea.
Why did Stephen go through all that history?
Chapter 7 is long. Seriously long. Stephen goes to great lengths to summarise pretty much the entire Old Testament, which seem like a lot of work given that he was talking to people whose profession it was to study it. I guess it shows that he knows what he’s talking about. But there’s something else going on here – he’s putting an emphasis on a certain point all the way through. The Jews are “resident aliens”. Stephen uses that phrase several times.
Stephen was accused (falsely) of claiming that Jesus was going to “destroy this place” and “change the customs”. Chances are, Stephen never said anything like that. One would assume, then, that his response would be to defend himself and prove that he never claiming those things. What’s interesting is that Stephen effectively agrees with them. He hadn’t said it before, but now that they’ve raised the topic he’s going to explore it.
What the synagogue rulers were afraid of was change. They wanted and expected their way of life to continue as it always had done, with them in charge, with their temple and synagogues functioning as they were, with the people believing what they did, with their customs and traditions intact. Stephen fearlessly reminded them that in fact the Jews had a history of change, that they were “resident aliens”, and that they should never expect things to stay the same. That’s not what God has called us to. God called us to be wanderers, to reach out into other people’s communities, to focus on God and not ourselves. Stephen responds to the false claims by saying ‘yes, all you have is temporary and worthless, because all that actually matters is God’. Brave move. And in our churches today, with our traditions and heritage and ways of working, it might come as a challenge to us too.
What made the Jewish leaders so angry?
They let him speak. They let him speak for ages, it seems. But then he makes it personal, and that’s when the mood seems to change. It’s no longer history, it’s current affairs, and that makes the Jewish leaders personally responsible. After all that foretelling through the prophets, the Messiah has come, and those Jewish leaders killed him.
Let’s not forget that the Jews were (and still are) waiting for the coming Messiah. They were expecting him any time soon. The leaders themselves were studying the scriptures to ensure they knew what to look for. And yet they made a massive mistake, and instead of welcoming him as their Lord and Saviour they rejected him and had him crucified. There’s more than a little pang of guilt there, I suspect.
What made the leaders angry was that the truth was out, and they wished it wasn’t. They couldn’t argue with the logic, they couldn’t disagree with what Stephen preached, and that made him all the more dangerous. He was going to upset everything, so these Christians needed stopping, even if they were in the right after all.
I can’t imagine many of my blog readers will have killed people to hide the truth. But there may have been times when we’ve tried to suppress what we suspect is true just because it’s uncomfortable. Maybe it’s a bit of theology that doesn’t fit with our present understanding. Maybe it’s an opinion shared by a fellow believer that we find hard to swallow. Maybe it’s something we’ve done wrong that we’ve rationalised away. It’s hard to admit that we’re wrong, especially when that has far-reaching consequences – if you’re wrong about this, you might be wrong about other things too. It would be far simpler just to push that annoying little truth out of the way, so that it doesn’t upset the apple cart. Maybe what God is teaching us through Stephen is that sometimes our apple cart needs upsetting.