by Al Maxey
Issue #742 -------
February 5, 2018
Great wisdom is generous; petty wisdom is contentious.
Great speech is impassioned, small speech cantankerous.
Chuang Tzu [369-286 B.C.]
Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), the noted French writer, stated in his Maxims, "Second-rate minds usually condemn everything beyond their grasp." Sadly, this is rather common within the human species. Throughout history, and especially during the history of the church, we have witnessed time and again the fierce persecution that arises against those who dare to challenge the religious teachings and traditions of their day. Those who raise questions, those who dare to think for themselves, those who refuse to "keep silent" in the face of rigid religiosity and party patternism, very quickly become targets of the guardians of traditional preference and practice. This has quite often led to the martyrdom of those who refused to conform to the accepted thinking of their day. Those deeply entrenched in sectarian and factional thinking and practice rarely agree to rethink their convictions, or to examine them in light of legitimate challenges based upon reasonable exegesis of God's Word. Instead, they will stop up their ears and attack! All other views must be silenced, they reason, for anything that is different from what they believe is ipso facto a "doctrine of demons." It is next to impossible to engage in reasonable dialogue with the rigidly religious, for they are convinced that they, and they alone, are correct in their understanding of everything pertaining to God's will. All others are "apostates."
The apostle Peter urges the disciples of Christ to "always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:15). You will rarely find this among those hardened in legalistic, patternistic, sectarian thinking and practice. They will either retreat behind their own walls and hope you go away, or they will launch an attack for the express purpose of silencing you. I have experienced both, and I know many of you have as well. In the early church, one of the men who dared to stand up to such misguided religionists, confronting their cherished perceptions and practices, was Stephen. He took on the religious establishment, and it would cost him his life. I have dealt with this account in some depth in Reflections #61 ("Why Was Stephen Stoned? A Study of Seven Factors Leading to a Good Man's Death"). I have dealt with the life of Stephen in a number of studies over the years, but in this present issue of my Reflections I want to turn my attention to those who stood against him. What motivated them to an explosive and deadly reaction to this man and his teaching? What can we today learn from this account? Specifically, I want to note Luke's psychological analysis of these religionists in Acts 6:10, for what he says about them is quite instructive.
Essentially, the reactive religionists that day in Jerusalem were of the mindset: "If you agree with us, then we will have fellowship with you." Their view of religious unity was, in reality, nothing other than sectarian uniformity. "We will have unity when you believe and behave according to our convictions and traditions." If you differ, you will die. This mindset is still with us today, and I have sought to expose it time and again in my writings: (1) Reflections #429 - "Fellowship's Uniformity Factor: Agree With Me on Everything I Consider Essential or Get Out of My Church!" and (2) Reflections #376 - "Heretic Hounding 101: Pondering Partyism's Pattern and Philosophy of Personal Persecution." In Reflections #163 I examine the contrast between the Thessalonicans and the Bereans in a study titled "A Berean Spirit: Thugs vs. Thinkers." The latter were far "more noble-minded" than the former. Those from Thessalonica were quite similar to those from Jerusalem who attacked Stephen; they shared a common malady, which I discuss in Reflections #381 - "Self-Inflicted Blindness: Our Lord Reflects upon Those Who Refuse to See and Hear." This leads to the plea we should extend daily to all parties: "Let Us Reason Together: A Plea to Differing Disciples for Responsible, Respectful Dialogue" (Reflections #187). This is a reasonable and godly plea, yet it is very rarely accepted by those bound to/by party positions, practices and preferences. "Comply or Die!" is their cry. A truth we see in the account of the death of Stephen.
As previously noted, Luke gives us some valuable insight into the psyche of those from the Synagogue of the Freedmen who "rose up and argued with Stephen" (Acts 6:9, NASB). Luke tells us that these men "were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking" (vs. 10, NASB). Before we examine the latter statement, let's take a moment and note who these men were. There were a number of synagogues in the city of Jerusalem at that time, but this particular one was known as the synagogue of the "Freedmen" (or the "Libertines"). These were Jews from the lands of the dispersion who were now living in Jerusalem. They included "Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia" (Acts 6:9). This was "a special synagogue in Jerusalem made up of Hellenistic Jews from Alexandria, Cyrenia, Cilicia and Asia. It was natural that Stephen, a Hellenist himself, would choose that synagogue as a natural place to witness. These were his people with a common background in Greek thought, culture, and a more intellectual, philosophic approach to the Jewish religion. It was the custom in that synagogue in Jerusalem to have debates over religious issues" [Dr. Lloyd J. Ogilvie, The Communicator's Commentary, vol. 5 - Acts, p. 139]. "They were Jews, but Hellenist Jews, Jews of the dispersion, who seem to have been more zealous for their religion than the native Jews" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. J. W. McGarvey wrote, "Stephen, being also a Hellenist, had doubtless been a member of this synagogue before he became a Christian, and by his new connection he had not forfeited his membership. Most naturally, when he began the public advocacy of the new faith, he did so in the synagogue of which he was already a member, and undertook the conviction and conversion of his former associates. This brought on the conflict" [New Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, p. 112]. If, in fact, this was the synagogue with which Stephen had been associated (and perhaps still was, as the early Jewish and Hellenistic disciples often continued their association with and attendance at their synagogues), some of his associates in that synagogue may have viewed him as deserter, since he had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Stephen, on the other hand, certainly sought to share his new faith with these close associates. Thus, the stage was set for a rather emotional confrontation between two opposing theological perspectives, both of which were held with deep conviction.
"Never, perhaps, even in the life of Jesus, had there been so protracted, and so warmly contested a debate between competent disputants on the great question of the day. It was the first time the disciples had measured arms with their opponents in open discussion" [McGarvey, ibid]. This was a momentous confrontation between the old and the new, with arguments being presented on both sides in an effort to validate one or the other theological position. Was this Jesus, whom many were now following, the Messiah? It was a confrontation so pivotal that the Holy Spirit was involved to help win the victory for the cause of Christ Jesus. As a result, these Jews, who were likely quite skilled in debate, were unable to "cope with" the wisdom of what Stephen presented to them that day, for they were attempting to stand up against not just Stephen himself, but also "the Spirit by which he spoke" (ASV). Although some feel it should be "spirit" (indicating Stephen's own spirit of boldness) rather than "Spirit," most biblical scholars feel it is the Holy Spirit in view here, who was helping Stephen as he testified to the truth of Jesus the Messiah. This was a direct fulfillment of our Lord's own statement to His disciples, telling them that times of confrontation and persecution were coming, but "it will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute" (Luke 21:13-15). Thus, Stephen was given a wisdom from above that his opponents were unable to resist (cope with) or refute, just as Jesus had predicted. All of their skilled argumentation, as well as their theological arguments, counted for nothing in the face of the wisdom from above that Stephen was boldly proclaiming that day.
"The strength of his case was such that his opponents in the debate found themselves worsted, ... yet they refused to accept his conclusions" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 133-134]. "He spoke with such fearlessness, clearness of argument, understanding of the prophecy, and power of the Spirit that his speech was irresistible" [H. Leo Boles, A Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, p. 100]. The Lord says, "Present your case; bring forward your strong arguments" (Isaiah 41:21). Those armed with Truth have nothing to fear from those who array themselves against it. The Hellenistic Jews that day presented their strong arguments against the case for the Messiahship of Jesus, and they were soundly defeated. Their best efforts were insufficient to refute the wisdom of the case presented by Stephen. What is truly tragic here is that these men, being unable to refute what Stephen taught, nevertheless rejected it, for it went against what they believed (even though they were unable to substantiate their beliefs when confronted with powerful evidence of a great Truth). There are none so blind as those who will not see! Just as tragic, such persons will invariably go on the attack when they realize their teachings and practices can't stand up under the light of the wisdom from above! "When men whose chief concern it is to vindicate themselves rather than the truth are defeated in debate, they very commonly resort to vituperation or violence. Both were tried against Stephen" [J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts of Apostles, vol. 1, p. 113]. In a translation note to the 1599 Geneva Bible we read, "False teachers, because they will not be overcome, flee from disputations and resort to manifest and open slandering and false accusations." When defeated in debate, these Jews paid people to make up false, slanderous allegations against Stephen and then dragged him before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:11-14). This led to his speech before the Council, which is recorded in Acts 7, and then ultimately to his execution by stoning. "Men only resort to persecuting tactics when they become conscious of their moral helplessness and theological inefficiency" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 212]. "When facts cannot be denied, nor made the foundation of charges, fancies are found to be convenient as material of attack" [ibid, p. 201]. "They were routed all along the line, ... and this defeat in a field in which they had supposed themselves undisputed masters rankled in the minds of these enemies of Christ. And, open warfare having failed, they resorted to slander and violence" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The New Testament, vol. 1, p. 562]. Nothing much has changed in 2000 years, has it?! This is still the tactic of choice among the legalists and rigid religionists of today.
Let me share with you something you may never have noticed about this account. Although what I'm about to suggest is purely speculative in nature (it is nowhere specifically stated in the biblical text), it nevertheless makes sense, and may help explain some very important connections in the story of the development of the early church. I believe there is a very strong possibility that one of the leading figures Stephen may have faced that day in open debate was Saul of Tarsus (later known to us as the apostle Paul). It is even possible he coordinated the efforts (lies and slanders and false witnesses) that led to the death of Stephen, at which he stood by watching and holding the cloaks of those carrying out that execution. At this time, Saul was living in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel, and he was well on his way to becoming one of the top rabbinical scholars. Thus, he would have been highly educated and skilled in the art of debate. He despised this new movement away from the traditions and laws of Judaism, and did all in his power to bring about its destruction. While in Jerusalem, he would have been a member of one of the synagogues, and probably a leading figure in that group. Note that in this Synagogue of the Freedmen there were members from Cilicia (Acts 6:9). Where was Paul from? "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no insignificant city" (Acts 21:39). He also admits that he "persecuted this Way to the death" (Acts 22:4), and that he was extremely zealous for God, and the Law, and his ancestral traditions. If Saul was a member of this particular synagogue, and he certainly could have been, it is very likely he would have been a powerful force to be reckoned with in that synagogue, and when Stephen met members of this group in debate, Saul would most certainly have wanted to be present. To be "bested" by Stephen in this confrontation, beaten by a member of the very "Way" he sought to destroy, would not have gone over well with Saul. All the more reason for him to stand there and witness the execution of this "traitor" to Judaism.
And yet, consider this fact: none of those there that day who confronted Stephen were able to cope with (resist) the wisdom with which he spoke; they could not overcome his arguments in favor of Jesus being the Messiah! This was something that Saul (if in fact he was there that day) would likely have thought about over the days and months ahead. This could provide some clarity to the statement of Jesus to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14). Is it possible some of the "goads" against which Saul was "kicking" were the arguments Stephen presented that day; arguments which Saul and the others were unable to cope with, resist, refute?! During his 72 hours of intense reflection in Damascus, my belief is that those arguments presented by Stephen were reviewed over and over in the mind of Saul, and at the end he finally had to concede to the truth of what this first Christian martyr had presented that day. Further, "who but an eyewitness could have relayed what happened that day? Who could have told Luke? Who but Saul of Tarsus?" [Dr. Lloyd J. Ogilvie, The Communicator's Commentary, vol. 5 - Acts, p. 141]. "Who could have been in the Synagogue of the Freemen who knew how to incite people to devise a plot with accusations, witnesses, and a fully documented case against Stephen? Who knew the codes for arrest and had the power to make one? Who but the head of the Sanhedrin's Gestapo -- Saul of Tarsus!" [ibid, p. 140].
"It is probable that he (Saul of Tarsus) was the most forward man of this synagogue of the Libertines in disputing with Stephen, and engaged others in the dispute, for we find him busy in the stoning of Stephen, and consenting to his death" [Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. The Greek scholar, Dr. A. T. Robertson, with respect to those who arrayed themselves against Stephen that day from this particular synagogue, wrote, "Stephen knocked them down, Saul included, as fast as they got up" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. "The mention of Cilicia suggests that this may have been the synagogue which Saul of Tarsus attended in Jerusalem" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 133]. "It is more than likely that among these men there was also Saul of Tarsus from Cilicia, a Pharisee of the Pharisees in orthodoxy and zeal" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The New Testament, vol. 1, p. 562]. Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown concur: "...amongst whom may have been Saul of Tarsus" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1088]. If indeed Saul was a part of that group that confronted Stephen, it helps clarify a number of matters, as noted above (not least of which is the "kicking against the goads" of which Jesus spoke). Indeed, that confrontation with Stephen, in which Saul was bested theologically, may well have been the turning point in his journey toward union with Jesus the Messiah.
I will close this study with the following comments on the nature of fanaticism, which was certainly displayed that day when Stephen was confronted by the religious zealots of the Synagogue of the Freedmen. "Fanaticism has one respectable feature: it is sincere. The fanatic believes what he asserts to be true, and he is earnest and zealous in the maintenance and propagation of his belief. But when we have said thus much we have said all that can be said in his favour. In fanaticism there is a culpable neglect of the reason which God has given to man to be his guide. The fanatic shuts his eyes and closes his ears, and rushes on his way with no more reflection or discrimination than a wild bull in its fury. Fanaticism, too, has a fatal tendency to deaden all moral considerations and to blunt a man's perceptions of right and wrong. It is in vain to look for justice, or fairness, or truth, or mercy, from a fanatic. There is no violence of which he is not capable if he thinks his faith is in danger, no wiles and baseness to which he will not stoop if he thinks it necessary for the defense of his cause. Murder, perjury, bribery, subornation of witnesses, and defamation of opponents by lies and slander, have constantly been the weapons by which fanaticism of various kinds has ever defended itself" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, p. 196].
From a Reader in South Carolina:
Brother Al, I would like to obtain the CD containing all four of your books in digital format (Four Books by Al Maxey). My check is enclosed. Your ministry is a total blessing! Thank you, and may God continue to bless you.
From a Reader in Georgia:
As I was reading this new Reflections ("A Plague of Rodents in Robes: Pondering Party Pulpiteering" - Issue #741), I couldn't help but think of the partisan divide in our politics today. It seems at times that looking after the good of the American people is often discarded in favor of looking after the good of a particular party. I find it disgusting that the motives are for personal gain rather than for the benefit of those whom they are elected and paid to serve. The American public gives the politicians about a 7% approval rating. I find it equally disgusting when denominational interests usurp the interests of Christ and the extending of grace that He offers those who will believe in Him. I think the bickering back and forth is what drives people away from certain faith-heritages. Most people don't like getting into a fuss with other denominations, and they just aren't going to get involved with any group that does. So to put oneself out there as the "end all" to religion, and then castigate all others, is a very poor platform. Especially when one's claims of superiority are so easily shown to be nothing other than party preference rather than biblical edict. Keep up the good work, Al; hopefully you will continue to remain on these people's "List of Heretics" for quite some time to come!
From an Author in Kentucky:
Thanks, Al, for this insightful examination ("A Plague of Rodents in Robes") of the subject of the distinctiveness of our message as opposed to the "same old, same old" sectarian shibboleths of our tradition. What these fellows (Fulford, Highers, etc.) don't realize is that our traditional, sectarian interpretations are distinctive only as opposed to other traditional, sectarian interpretations. Preaching Christ and what He has done is the true distinctive of true Christians! I don't mean to hold myself up as a paragon of perfection in this respect, but I couldn't help but think of something that happened to me a while back. I ran into an acquaintance at our local Wal-Mart. We chatted for a few moments when he told me that he had been reading some of my writings and that he appreciated very much what I was writing. He told me that I didn't sound like the average "Church of Christ preacher," and so he wanted to meet with me so he could find out what made me tick. This fellow preaches for a Methodist church, but one of the first things he told me about himself is that he is anything but a Methodist. He said he just wants to preach the gospel. We talked a good while, prayed together, and parted with a great love and mutual respect between us. As a result of our friendship, I recently was asked to speak to the congregation he pastors.
From a Reader in Indiana:
In your last article on rodents in robes you wrote: "The danger is when any one fold perceives and proclaims itself to be that one Flock to the exclusion of all other folds. This is a spiritual blindness and arrogance that is hard to stomach, yet we've all seen and experienced it. It is also an arrogance that quickly finds its way into the pulpit where party pulpiteers promote the view that their group, and their group alone, IS in its entirety "THE One True Church." This type of attitude displayed by these sectarians is disgusting! I am completely sickened by the divisive, non-loving attitude shown by these men. Are we even to consider them as actual brethren?! When it comes down to it, I have to ask myself, "Aren't these men preaching a different gospel? Aren't they adding human requirements to the gospel?" Thanks, brother, for the great article!
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