Stephen, Session #1 (All quotes generally ESV)
A PROBLEM ARISES IN THE EARLY CHURCH
THE FIRST MARTYR, SAINT STEPHEN
Our first encounter with Stephen is Acts 6:1-4. There was a problem within the congregation (now THERE’S a surprise, huh? Congregations are made up of sinners, and sinners invariably have a problem with other sinners!). Verse 1 says “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”
Let me “decode” that: “Hellenists” are Jews who speak Greek; we don’t know if they also champion Greek culture. “Hebrews” are also Jews but speak Aramaic, live by all of the Mosaic laws, customs and traditions. Apparently, some of the Greek speaking folks didn’t think their people were getting their “fair share” of the food distribution.
The 12 Apostles (Judas had been replaced with Matthias, Acts 1:15-26) were the
final arbiters in the early Church on matters of faith and of practice, but they said “We cannot take time away from our important duties to handle mundane matters like this” (Acts 6:2 actual words: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”)
In that verse, καταλείψαντας is NOT the Greek word for “give up preaching.” The verse literally says “abandon the service (deaconia–διακονίᾳ–our English word “deacon”) of the word of God.” The Apostles had the job of analyzing the Old Testament with “new eyes.” Their interpretation of Jesus’ words and deeds and their study of the Old Testament was authoritative! They needed to spend all of their time on this project, not settling disputes and other things which could be done by others who had not been with Jesus from day one.
So, the Apostles appointed some men to handle such matters, in order that they could get back to working through the Old Testament! Acts 6:4 says “But we will devoteourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Literally it says “we will persevere… in the service (deaconia–διακονίᾳ again) of the word.” “Service of the word” is a technical way of saying the Holy Spirit had given them a special job to do in order to provide this study for the Church which only the 12 Apostles could do.
(As a side note, why are these men now called “Apostles” instead of “Disciples?” In the early Church, an Apostle was taught by Jesus personally AND had seen the Risen Lord. There is only ONE generation of these men—there can be no more!)
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT STEPHEN?
In a word, the information is pretty thin. However, the information we have about Stephen and the sermon he gave is 20% of the book of Acts! Luke obviously thought he was extremely important, so attention must be paid!
We would like to know more, but Luke had to keep things to a minimum. The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are both massive. In the age of “scrolls,” both writings are about 32 feet long; anything over 30-32 feet becomes difficult to handle!
Stephen was one of the seven men they appointed to take care of these mundane matters which were troubling the early church. According to Acts 6, he did quite a bit more than that. In fact, Acts 6:8 says he was performing “great wonders and signs among the people.” (In other words, miracles!)
Historically, these seven men are often referred to as “Deacons,” although Acts 6 does not call them this. In fact, “deacon” is a word applied to the Apostles’ work (twice!) but not these seven men. In today’s church, these men might be referred to as “Elders” who typically are tasked with assisting the Pastor in spiritual issues as well as non-Biblical problems within the congregation. The Office of Deacon comes from Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, not from the book of Acts!
Every day at 3:00 p.m. there was a Temple service at which prayers and monetary offerings were made for Julius Caesar (yes, you read that correctly! We continue this practice today in our General Prayer of the Church, when we pray “for all those in authority.” The ancient Jewish liturgy is the origin of this prayer request.) These offerings insured the continued exemption of Jewish boys from Roman military service. This continued until 66 A.D. and the Jewish revolt against Rome. We should try to understand that speaking “against the Temple” had all kinds of ramifications for the Jews.
Stephen became entangled in arguments with some of the local Jews—generally “he never ceases to speak words against this holy place.” (Acts 6:13) He managed to anger them mostly because he was too smart for them and they couldn’t win an argument! They trumped up charges of blasphemy against him (just like they did with Jesus!) Stephen’s “defense” is his sermon in Acts 7—such a powerful sermon that he was summarily stoned to death for it!
WHAT WE WANT TO STUDY:
What are some of the non-Biblical stories and traditions surrounding Stephen?
Why does Stephen’s speech emphasize JOSEPH more than anyone else in the New Testament?
Why is Stephen the only one in the New Testament who declares the Temple in Jerusalem to be a piece of idolatry?
Why is Stephen’s theology so clearly influenced by Samaritan theology?
What is the significance of Stephen saying “I see heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God?” (Acts 7:56)
Where does Stephen get his unique interpretation of the Old Testament?
Did Stephen’s peculiar understanding of the Old Testament disappear, or is the Book of Hebrews an advanced development of Stephen’s theology?