Amidst the rapid growth and development of the church in Jerusalem there arose a time of internal strife and discord which had the potential of thwarting the spiritual progress of this band of devoted disciples. It appears that in the daily serving of those needy saints within the church there was a hint of discrimination. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked, whereas the Hebrew widows were not (Acts 6:1). Without doubt, charges of favoritism, and rumblings of racism, were beginning to be heard within this body of believers. The problem was serious; immediate attention was required lest the One Body be torn asunder.
The solution opted for by The Twelve was for the congregation to select from among themselves "seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom," who would be commissioned to oversee the daily ministry to the needy saints. Through the administration of these men, the benevolent work of the church would proceed with fairness and equity, all of those in need would receive assistance, and tensions would hopefully subside. It was a good plan. It would allow the apostles to continue devoting themselves to prayer, "and to the ministry of the Word" (Acts 6:4). After all, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables" (Acts 6:2). The people "were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching" (Acts 2:42), and that vital ministry of the Word could not suffer neglect due to distractions over more material concerns. Others would be assigned responsibility for these tasks associated with daily ministry so that The Twelve could remain focused on the Word.
The plan "found approval with the whole congregation" (Acts 6:5), and they set about choosing the seven leaders for this ministry. The first name listed in the biblical record (which may indicate he was the people's first choice) was Stephen, "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5). Stephen was a remarkable man. It is easy to see why his fellow disciples chose him so quickly. He was evangelistic, willing to share the good news of God's grace with those about him. He was also "full of grace and power, performing great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). He was a fabulous choice!
Yet, by the end of the next chapter in Acts we find this godly man being stoned to death by a mob of angry Jews! What happened?! What went wrong? What brought about such a remarkable turn of events? Considering his wisdom, faith, grace, reputation, works of service, miraculous power, and devotion to the Lord, why would anyone want to viciously take the life of this man?! Why was Stephen stoned?! The answer may surprise you.
ONE: Served Among The People
The first factor that led to the ultimate death of Stephen might seem insignificant at first glance. "And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8). He mingled; he positioned himself visibly among the people of Jerusalem. Had he chosen to do as many do today -- stay home and stay safe; attend to his duties and "mind his own business" -- he likely would have continued to enjoy the good favor of the populace.
Stephen perceived his service to God much differently, however. He realized there were numerous precious people all around him who were outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. They were lost. They needed to hear the saving message of God's matchless grace. There were those who had likely participated in the events leading to the crucifixion of God's Son who needed to hear it was their Messiah they had put to death. Thus, Stephen chose not to cower within the four walls of some "crystal cathedral" and play the "saintly sage." Instead, he went into the streets, into the market places, into the Temple courts; he mingled with the masses, and he boldly proclaimed Truth.
Truth is not always popular! At times it is met with hostility. In the battle for the lives of those about us, however, the soldier of Christ must never be found cowering in a foxhole, afraid to engage the forces arrayed against the Lord. He must be on the front lines, among the people, where the battle for men's hearts is waged daily. The first factor leading to the stoning of Stephen, therefore, was: he was visible and he was vocal.
TWO: Couldn't Resist His Spirit
The second factor that led to the tragic death of this good man was that the people who opposed him were completely incapable of successfully coping with and refuting his powerful teaching, nor were they able to tolerate the remarkable spirit with which he approached and addressed those around him. Stephen was one of the reasons that the number of disciples was "increasing greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). Some of the Jews, obviously concerned over the successes of these faithful disciples, "rose up and argued with Stephen" (Acts 6:9). Convinced that he was one of the leading figures in this growing movement, and one of the forces behind its success, they decided to "take him on" in public; to confront him in a highly visible venue. They undoubtedly believed they could easily discredit this man and turn back the hearts of the people to their own doctrines and practices.
Their plan exploded in their faces, however! It was they who were made to look foolish in public, because "they were unable to cope with (stand up against) the wisdom and the spirit with which he was speaking" (Acts 6:10). Stephen was a godly man proclaiming God's Truth, and they were powerless to refute his teaching. They sought to humiliate this teacher, and only succeeded in humiliating themselves. This infuriated them; a fury which turned to murderous rage. Stephen was speaking Truth and bearing fruit. This was too much for his critics to bear. There is an ancient proverb which declares: "Stones are not thrown except at the fruit-laden tree." Stephen bore fruit for the Lord .... and it got him stoned!
THREE: False Witnesses & Accusations
Truth which is perceptively and powerfully proclaimed can never be successfully thwarted by those determined to stand against it. Truth will always ultimately prevail. The Jews finally realized this, which led to the third factor facilitating the death of Stephen -- if you can't gain an honest advantage, seek a dishonest one! The Jews attacked Stephen with lies. "Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, 'We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God'" (Acts 6:11). Verse 13 informs us "they produced false witnesses" who testified (before the Sanhedrin), probably under oath, additional lies.
Since these disreputable men couldn't refute Truth, they embraced lies. They were incapable of arguing against the message, so they did what godless men have done for centuries: they attacked the messenger. If you can't refute the teaching, then you go after the teacher. This then became their revised strategy.
Were these witnesses truthful in their accusations against Stephen? Of course not! They perjured themselves before the high council of the Jewish nation. Their statements were as far from truth as one could get. But, these men were not interested in truth .... they were interested in only one thing: silencing Stephen. If they couldn't do it honorably, they would do it dishonorably. They felt the end justified the means. They therefore assembled a rabble of disreputable men to bear false witness against one of Jerusalem's most devoted disciples. How much lower can one sink than to use such a Satanic strategy to destroy another man and his ministry? One way or another, they would rid the earth of this "troubler" of the people. Their strategy ultimately led to Stephen's death.
FOUR: Stirred Up The People
Stephen's callous critics were not content with using false accusations and false witnesses against him. This was not sufficient in their estimation. More was needed. Thus, they deviously determined to stir up public opinion against this good man. They riled the rabble to such an extent that people were ready to drag Stephen off and inflict great harm upon him. "And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away" (Acts 6:12). The phrase "stir up" comes from the Greek word sugkineo which means: "to whip into a frenzy; to stir up a commotion." This is the only time this word appears in the Bible!
The opponents of Stephen worked the crowds. They whipped the people into such a frenzy with their lies and accusations that the mob was ready for blood .... specifically: Stephen's. This was much like the situation in Ephesus during Paul's third missionary journey. His critics had also stirred up the citizens of the city against him. Acts 19:32 says the people were in a completely confused state --- "some were shouting one thing and some another, and the majority did not even know for what cause they had come together!" It would almost be comical, if it were not so tragic! Such are the tactics of those determined to silence those whom they oppose.
Mob psychology is a fascinating study. If one can whip a crowd into a frenzy, one can easily manipulate that mob into acting in ways which, under normal circumstances, a rational person, or group of persons, would never consider. Through lies, the public testimony of false witnesses, and some clever manipulation of public opinion, these enemies of Stephen achieved what they were unable to achieve alone --- the silencing and slaughter of a godly man. As one commentator noted: "Enemies of Truth will always appeal to the people by false accusations against those who preach Truth. Slander and rumor will always agitate a crowd. Those determined to prevail at all costs will ultimately be led to the point where they attack the man, rather than the message."
FIVE: Cut To The Heart
After the false charges had been leveled against him, Stephen was given the opportunity by the Jewish high priest to make a public defense of himself before the Sanhedrin. This Stephen did, making the most of this moment. His "defense," however, was not a defense of himself, but rather an impassioned plea for these people to come to their senses and accept the Truth. Some, who have studied the style of Stephen's plea, characterize it as more of an attack than a defense. In other words, Stephen went on the offensive for Truth, rather than simply seeking to save his own skin.
This bold disciple of Jesus did not mince his words. He told it just like it was! He denounced them as stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and as always resisting the Holy Spirit. He accused them of being murderers and betrayers of the righteous, just like their ancestors before them!
Needless to say, his frankness before the court did not sit well with these Jewish leaders, nor with his accusers, and it certainly didn't go over well with the people who had already been whipped into a frenzy against him. "Now when they heard this they were cut to the quick (pierced inwardly), and they gnashed their teeth at him" (Acts 7:54). They were so furious that he dared to speak this way against them --- never mind how they had spoken against him --- that they began grinding their teeth in rage, having been pierced deeply in their hearts by his truthful statements. Stephen told them the truth; a truth they didn't want to hear .... he stepped on their toes, and it was painful to them .... and it ultimately cost him his life!
SIX: Covered Their Ears
They were cut to the heart, they gnashed their teeth, and "they cried out with a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him with one impulse" (Acts 7:57). They had had enough! They didn't want to hear another word from the lips of this man they had come to abhor. If they could not silence him with reasoned arguments (which they couldn't), if they could not silence him with lies and slanders (which they couldn't), then they would silence him with stoning!!
How typical of the dark side of human nature. People are "all ears" when it comes to listening to that "juicy tidbit" about someone else. The mob was "all ears" when the critics of Stephen were filling their hearts and minds with lies and false accusations. The people listened attentively. But, when Stephen dared to defend himself, and to proclaim words of Truth, the people covered their ears! "Don't confuse me with the facts ... my mind is made up!" The people of Jerusalem, having lost all sense of reason, rushed upon Stephen, drove him out of the city gates, picked up the nearest and largest stones they could handle, and slaughtered this devoted disciple. Thus, Stephen became the first martyr in the Lord's church.
SEVEN: Stood And Watched
As if this wasn't all disturbing enough, perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of this entire episode is that there were those who stood nearby, watched this murder take place, and did nothing! We even know the name of one of them -- a young man from Tarsus named Saul (later known to us, under more favorable circumstances, as the apostle Paul). Throughout the process leading to the death of this good man there were most likely observers who knew the charges were false, who knew the treatment of this man was ungodly, who could have perhaps intervened in some way to defuse the situation, but who did nothing.
At the end of the apostle Paul's life, as he himself faced execution for his faith, he wrote, "No one supported me, all deserted me" (2 Timothy 4:16). One has to wonder if perhaps the lonely plight of Stephen came to Paul's mind at this moment near the end of his own life. In vs. 17, however, Paul declares, "But the Lord stood with me." One cannot help but think of what Stephen saw as he died -- the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Jesus did not desert either Stephen or Paul. He stood with them both. As Stephen died he said, "Lord, don't hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). In like manner, Paul prayed for those who had deserted him, saying, "may it not be counted against them" (2 Timothy 4:16). No, I don't think Paul ever forgot Stephen. He carried the memory of that fateful day within his heart all the days of his life.
Too often when a faithful servant of the Lord is being vilified by vile critics, too many disciples stand silently by and do nothing to assist the one being eviscerated. This is unconscionable. The stoning of the "Stephens" of this world will continue unchecked until the "cloak holders" step out of the crowd and confront these cowardly critics of those who stand up for Truth.
Why was Stephen stoned? Because he was a man of faith, intent upon sharing the good news of God's grace with others; because he stood his ground even though the message was not always popular; because he was bearing fruit for the Lord; because his opponents determined to silence this good man, and couldn't do it in honest, open debate, and so sought to do so with lies, slander, and manipulation of public opinion. On the one hand, what a disgusting display of godlessness; on the other hand, what an enduring testimony of the beauty of a disciple devoted to Truth regardless of personal cost. What an example of godly determination in the face of ungodly abuse.
"Don't give the opposition a second thought. Through thick and thin, keep your hearts at attention, in adoration before Christ, your Master. Be ready to speak up and tell anyone who asks why you're living the way you are, and always with the utmost courtesy. Keep a clear conscience before God so that when people throw mud at you, none of it will stick. They'll end up realizing that they're the ones who need a bath" (1 Peter 3:14-16, The Message). "Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit Me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens -- give a cheer, even! -- for though they don't like it, I do. And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble" (Matthew 5:11-12, The Message).
From a Reader in (Unknown):
Dear Brother, As a 67-year-old woman raised in the Church of Christ, I was one of those young people who had to tell their friends that they could not go to heaven unless they were members of the Church of Christ, not a Baptist or a Christian Church. In all these years this has been a sad part of my life because a best friend in high school died, and he was from a very good Christian family, and yet for most of my life I believed, as I had been taught, that this dear person could not go to heaven. I believed I could never be as good as that person was, so God would surely reject me.
I have read several of your Reflections, which were sent to me by a sister-in-Christ, and I then sent them on to others. Please put me on your mailing list for Reflections. Keep up the great work. God bless!
From a Preacher in Missouri:
If it is not a sheep's nature to act like a wolf, devouring other sheep and all, then I would say your critics need to check themselves! A wolf is incapable of showing love to a sheep. Continue to spread the Word!
From a Reader in Indiana:
I've never cared for mosquitoes much, but after Reflections #58 I have a new appreciation for them. I can't wait to be exposed to the next deadly disease!! I continue to enjoy and be challenged by your Reflections. Thank you!
From a Reader in Texas:
Dear Alliterative Al, Thank you for your article Labeling Lambs -- Truth beautifully written. Love in Jesus, from An Old English Teacher.
From a Preacher in Alabama:
Brother Maxey, I wanted to thank you for your article on "One Flock, Many Folds." I pray that our churches will soon begin to understand that there are people who are members of the "one true church" who don't worship in our buildings. Thanks again brother. God bless you!
From a Reader in Louisiana:
Thanks for another good one, Al. I appreciate the work you put into Reflections. Regarding labels on lambs ... I only want my tag to say: Belongs to Jesus! I have very often found that sheep bites hurt me worse than wolf bites!
From a Reader in Montana:
Brother Al, There are three books which I have, and have read, that you may or may not have, but they cover pretty much the same line of reasoning as your writings. They opened my eyes to just how far brothers have separated themselves from one another and from the Truth.
If you have not read these, you should; if you have, then you understand my point. All three of these men are now retired Church of Christ preachers and didn't rock the boat by preaching on these things until after retirement. In most places, if not all, preachers would be looking for employment, or be "called on the carpet," if they were to even hint at some of these thoughts in a sermon.
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