Studies in the Book of Acts
The preaching of Stephen (6:8-10)
Luke next turns to give an account of Stephen’s ministry. The apostles are teaching mainly at the temple, and in front of the Sanhedrin. Now we see a subtle shift in audience, as a leader of the Hellenistic Christian community brings the gospel to the Greek-speaking synagogues in Jerusalem. In particular, he evangelizes among members of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen,” composed of Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria in North Africa and from provinces in Asia Minor — Cilicia and Asia (6:9).
“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated by their owners. During Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 b.c., for example, many Jews were taken captive to Rome, and many others probably ended up being sent to various parts of the Empire. Many of these slaves were later freed. The descendants of such slaves, the Jewish freedmen, begin to argue with Stephen. But they cannot “stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (6:10). Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would teach them what to say when they came to trial (Luke 12:12). They will be given “words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:15). Luke shows that another prophecy had come to pass.
In essence, Stephen speaks as a prophet, as one of the witnesses predicted by Jesus. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom (6:5, 10; 7:55) and he does “great wonders and signs.” For Luke these are the marks of a prophet. [Acts 2:19, 22, 43; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12.] Stephen is “full of God’s grace and power” (6:8). The comparison with the apostles, who also spoke “with great power,” is clear (4:33). Stephen speaks with the same spiritual might as the apostles, and should be recognized as one who brings a true gospel message.
False accusations (6:11-14)
After hearing Stephen speak, Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen organize a smear campaign. They persuade some people to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). To blaspheme or slander Moses is to say something thought to be disrespectful about the Torah, “the law of Moses.” What Stephen is probably doing is challenging the centrality of the law in God’s plan of salvation — he is saying that Jesus, not the law, is the center of God’s plan.
To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals. By saying that salvation comes through Christ, Stephen seems to say that the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is not needed. But the temple is the foundation and focus of Jewish national life, worship and salvation. This does not set well with a pious Jewish group that centers its religious life around its institutions. The temple is the very reason these people had moved to Jerusalem.
The Synagogue of Freedman take their campaign of slander to the streets, to the city fathers and religious leaders. With mounting support in their favor, the Freedmen are emboldened to grab Stephen and drag him before the Sanhedrin. They bring false witnesses who lay an ominous charge against Stephen: “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law” (6:13). Similar charges are later leveled against Paul (21:20-21, 28; 24:7; 25:8).
Stephen is charged with religious innovation. The witnesses claim: “We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (6:14). Although Luke says this accusation comes from false witnesses, there is truth in what they are saying. Even if Stephen was not preaching it, they were able to see that if what Stephen is preaching is true, then it does render the temple and the ancestral customs obsolete.
Temple obsolete (6:11-14)
Jesus did predict the destruction of the temple (Luke 21:5), and that people did not need to worship there (John 4:21). Jesus is God’s replacement for the temple – a hard saying for unconverted Jews (Mark 14:58; 15:19; John 2:19). God is not to be found in a place, or a system of worship, or a time. Rather, he lives within all believers, wherever they were, through the Spirit.
Jesus declared the temple to be obsolete as a place where one must go to worship and have sin atoned. True spiritual cleansing comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection. [Mark 15:38; John 4:21; Ephesians 2:20; Hebrews 10:20; 1 Peter 2:5.] Stephen is probably echoing these thoughts, insisting that with the coming of Christ the temple order is finished. The book of Hebrews explains this, and discusses the same general points Stephen probably makes. As F.F. Bruce points out, “In a number of respects Stephen blazes a trail later followed by the writer to the Hebrews.” [Bruce, 132.]
If the book of Hebrews contains the kinds of spiritual realities Stephen is speaking about, it’s not surprising that the Jews are angry at him. In their view, these ideas support the notion that he is speaking against Moses and God.
Stephen had a vision of a world for Christ. To the Jews two things were specially precious — the Temple, where alone sacrifice would be offered and God could be truly worshipped, and the Law which could never be changed. Stephen, however, said that the Temple must pass away, that the Law was but a stage toward the gospel and that Christianity must go out to the whole wide world. [William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), page 53.]
We have no account of Stephen’s preaching to the Greek-speaking Jews, so we don’t know exactly what he told them. But we can infer the drift of his teaching from the criticisms leveled against him, and from his later speech before the Aramaic-speaking Sanhedrin. With such volatile issues at stake, the antagonistic Freedmen merely needed to put a subtle but deadly twist on what Stephen is saying. There is no need for wholesale fabrication.
Stephen’s speech is unusual in that it attacks the very basis of Jewish life, something that the Twelve, so far as we can tell from Acts, don’t do. They don’t minimize the temple — they worship there, as does most of the church (2:46; 3:1; 5:13). But Stephen is doing more than insisting that Jews must accept Jesus as Messiah. He is telling them that their faith in the law and temple is misplaced and of no particular value.
From the accusations and from his defense, it is clear that Stephen had begun to apply his Christian convictions regarding the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive program to such issues as the significance of the land, the law, and the temple for Jewish Christians in view of the advent of the Messiah. This, however, was a dangerous path to tread, particularly for Hellenistic Jewish Christians! It was one that the apostles themselves seem to have been unwilling to explore. [Longenecker, 336.]
Stephen’s frontal attack on Jewish institutions has far-reaching repercussions for the church in Jerusalem. His speech alienates the Jewish community from the church, and unites its disparate parties against the believers. The entire city of Jerusalem is infuriated (6:12).
The chief-priestly party knew that they need have no fear of popular disapproval this time in prosecuting a leading member of the Nazarene community; on the contrary, the people would support and indeed demand the severest sanctions of the law against the man. [Bruce, 126.]
From the Sanhedrin to “the man on the street,” it turned into enemies those who had until now at least tolerated the believers. This in turn removed the one thing that had restrained the Sanhedrin from a thoroughgoing persecution of the believers, namely, their popularity (cf. 2:47; 5:13, 26). [Williams, 125.]
Facing the Sanhedrin (6:15)
Chapter 6 describes the background of Stephen’s missionary work, which leads to his arrest. The next chapter, the longest in Acts, is devoted to Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. Taken together, the two chapters complete Luke’s discussion of the preaching of the gospel in Jerusalem and his description of the church in the city. After this, Luke begins reporting on the church’s expansion beyond Jerusalem.
The last verse of chapter 6 sets the stage for Stephen’s long speech before the Sanhedrin. Luke says that to the Sanhedrin members Stephen appeared to have “the face of an angel” (6:15). Luke probably means to tell us that Stephen is being led by the Holy Spirit (6:3, 5), and that the speech we will read is inspired by God. The high priest asks Stephen if the charges brought against him are true (7:1). This high priest was probably Caiaphas, who held office until A.D. 36. As president of the Sanhedrin, he was the chief judge in Jewish trials.
Author: Paul Kroll, 1995, 2012