Summary: This is the fifth in my CSI series and the first of the New Testament, looks at the death of Stephen and what we can learn from it.
It would appear that he had every thing going for him. He was one of the leaders of the early church. He was a person of influence and integrity and he had the respect and honour of his colleagues and peers. Think about it, how would you like to be described as “a person full of faith and the Holy Spirit?” That’s how this man was described.
It would appear that he had everything going for him. There was just one small problem. He was dead. He had been murdered, cut down in his prime, killed by the very things that made him who he was, his integrity and his Godliness.
His name was Stephen and he was first introduced to us in the book of Acts as the early church faced one of it’s first challenges. The story begins in Acts chapter 6, with the church going through unprecedented growth. Literally thousands of new believers were being added to the church and the apostles were struggling with how to handle the influx. Miracles are happening, people are getting saved, society is being influenced and then we read Acts 6:1 But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. Boy you gotta hate that. So what were the grumblings about, obviously in such a spiritual group, who lived so close to the resurrection and the day of Pentecost it must have been something that involved spiritual issues, maybe arguments over doctrine or theology. Nope nothing so grand and compelling, if we continue to read we discover: Those who spoke Greek complained against those who spoke Hebrew, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
Remember at this point Christ followers considered themselves Jews and as such they felt an obligation to taking care of their own, especially the widows in the group. In a society that was as male oriented as Palestine and most of the world was 2000 years ago a women’s existence really depended on her husband. He was the bread winner and the shelter provider and in many cases his wife didn’t have the ability or opportunity to provide for herself and so if she lost her husband her community had to step up to the plate to support her. And the early church embraced that, in James 1:27 Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us.
The problem was while the church at this stage was comprised of Jews they weren’t all the same Jews. Hundreds of years previous the country of Israel had been conquered by Assyria and Babylon and as part of that many of their people were taken captive. During that time they were assimilated into the culture of their captors and eventually lost their original language. Fast forward a few hundred years and the Greeks under Alexander the Great captured most of the known world. Instead of taken people captive the Greeks took their culture captive by simply insisting that they take on the Grecian culture and language and so Greek became the common language of the area. However the Jews in Palestine resisted and while most of them spoke Greek they still considered Hebrew their primary language and anyone who didn’t speak Hebrew was considered less of a Jew. Still with me? Well the Jews who returned to Israel at various times had lost their Hebrew and simply spoke the language of the market place and there was the problem.
While that shouldn’t have mattered in a perfect world it seemed to matter in an imperfect world. The result was that the widows who spoke Greek complained that they weren’t receiving the same care as the widows who spoke Hebrew, kind of Star-Belly Sneetches and Sneetches without. Now we don’t know for sure that there was any actual discrimination but there was the presumption.
The Apostles realized that they were getting more and more things on their plate and were unable to do everything well so they appointed seven men to help out, it’s interesting to note that all seven had Greek names not Hebrew names. One of these men was Stephen. And this is what the scriptures say about him, Acts 6:5 . . .they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit). . . and then later Acts 6:8 Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people.
And so at that point it would appear that he had everything going for him, a sterling character and a leadership position in a dynamic growing church but then the wheels came off the wagon. Stephen had been telling people about Jesus and the change that had happened in his life and he was accused of blasphemy and dragged before the council of high priests where he was asked to defend himself, which he did. He preached the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts and took the high priests on a whirlwind tour of the Old Testament. He seemed to be on a roll and when you are learning to preach they always tell you to end strong and that may have been Stephen’s mistake. Acts 7:51-53 “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? But your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, though you received it from the hands of angels.”