The church had a problem at the beginning of Acts 6. They were all Jews, of course, but most of them were native to the area. Jews had moved all over the Roman Empire and had established synagogues in every major Greek city.
A number of those Jews eventually moved back to Jerusalem. They spoke Greek, but not the local Aramaic. They had their own synagogue, known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen. They observed all of the major Jewish practices, but were not familiar with all the local customs and politics. Their children probably fared better, as children of immigrants usually do, but still continued to attend the Greek synagogue.
As the church grew, it included both Hebraic and Hellenic Jews. The Christians pooled their resources and distributed food to the needy in their midst. Unfortunately, the Hellenic widows wound up not getting their share, or at least thinking so.
The Apostles’ chief duty was to recall all that Jesus had done and taught, study Scripture to explain Jesus to other Jews, evangelize, and teach the new converts. They couldn’t devote full time to that work if they also had to settle disputes and administer the church’s social ministry. So they suggested that the church find other men to take care of that and specified what kind of men were qualified.
Those qualifications had nothing to do with what would be found in a modern job description. Qualifications did not include experience in food service, management, or any of that. They only had to have a reputation for wisdom and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Every single one of these seven new leaders had a Greek name. Probably every single one of them was a Hellenic Jew. They had the explicit duty to serve the physical needs of the community. Since they were all wise men full of the Holy Spirit, is it any surprise that at least a couple of them became known for apologetics and evangelism?
Stephen and his ministry
Stephen attended that Greek synagogue and proclaimed the gospel there. He had made a thorough study of Scripture and knew it much better than anyone else. He backed up his teaching by performing miracles. I expect that a lot of Jews from that synagogue became Christian as a result of his efforts.
He couldn’t persuade everyone, though. Some people argued vehemently for the traditional rabbinic teachings. Trouble was, Stephen had an unfair advantage. He knew Scripture better than the rabbis did, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he spoke words that no one could successfully refute.
Since they couldn’t accept Stephen’s teachings and ministry, they tried to silence him. Eventually they turned to the expedient of a trial on trumped up charges. The Sanhedrin had already used the same tactic to get rid of Jesus. So when the high priest invited Stephen to speak in his own defense, it didn’t mean they intended to hear him out or seriously consider whether he might be right.
Stephen’s speech was a masterpiece, and very probably used a line of argument he had used before. Here’s the gist of the speech, which can be found in Acts 7:
Abraham left his home town with no idea of where he was going, but God had made him some big promises. Just before Isaac was born to fulfill one of them, God told Abraham, who owned no land at all, that all of the land would belong to his descendants, but only after 400 years of slavery in Egypt.
Jacob had 12 sons, but only Joseph was a godly and trustworthy man. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery, an ungodly majority persecuting a godly minority. That marked the beginning of the fate God had told Abraham about.
After that period of slavery, God raised up Moses to deliver the rest of the people. He was a godly, trustworthy man, but none of the rest of the Jews trusted God. Their challenges gave him fits, so again the ungodly majority persecuted the godly minority.
And so it went. Stephan preached example after example of a minority of people trying to follow God’s ways, persecuted by an ungodly majority of their own people, and usually this majority comprised all of the official leadership, the kings and the priests.
Stephen also spoke at length about the tabernacle. God had instructed Moses to build it and given him detailed instructions. He dismissed the temple Solomon had built calling it only “this house.” God does not live in houses built by men.
Stephen went on to point God had sent numerous prophets and denounced the majority of Jews as a stiff-necked people. He had lately sent Jesus into the world as the godly minority. The Sanhedrin had played its role as the official priests and rulers leading the ungodly majority by murdering God’s chosen spokesman and refusing to obey the law.
And so Acts describes how the man in the dock boldly denounced his judges as the ungodly sinners that they were. So of course they proved the accuracy of his accusation by immediately having him murdered.
Stephen’s warning to the modern church
Why should church leaders or anyone else think that the pattern Stephen described has ever stopped? Always, throughout Christian history, a minority has truly listened to God and not followed human tradition. Always the majority of the church has been either indifferent or hostile to this minority. With alarming regularity, it has taken over the highest leadership positions.
Every reform movement in the church, from the hermits in ancient times, through the founding of monasteries and various orders like the Franciscans and Dominicans, on through the Protestant revolution, various new Protestant movements, the various waves of revivalism, including the Pentecostal and Charismatic revivals of the 20th century have reached the same end. The same depressing pattern will surely continue until Christ returns.
- They start out because a man or woman of God has a vision of what the church ought to be.
- These people attract as followers others who have heard from God.
- As the movements grow, the traditional leadership becomes alarmed and them. That opposition does not always rise to the level of deceit and violence practiced by the Sanhedrin, but it has all too often.
- Eventually, the movements attract not only wise, spiritually discerning people, but the less committed begin to join—and eventually rise to positions of leadership. At that point, the reform movements either become accepted into the established order that the founder had resisted, or they remain hostile to it while becoming just as dead spiritually.
That isn’t to say that these movements can’t continue to follow their founder’s vision or even that all the leaders become spiritually dead, but the minority of people who hear from God will always have to buck the eventual majority that doesn’t.
If we recognize this pattern and see it in operation, it does no good to respond simply by pointing fingers in judgment. That would be a pretty good indication of our own spiritual sickness! Instead, we ought to spend enough time in the word and in prayer that we never drift toward accepting the world system in any of its guises. That’s the only way we can join or remain in that godly minority Stephen tells us about.