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Acts 7:55-60

May 12, 2014

Stephen is the first follower of Jesus to be killed for his faith in Jesus. Unlike the 12 disciples, Stephen is probably not an Aramaic-speaking Jew from Galilee. In all liklihood, he is a “Hellenist”–a Greek-speaking Jew. (In chapter 6 the early church picks seven men with Greek names to run the food distribution program because of claims that the Hellenists were being discriminated against; Stephen is one of those seven men.) If Stephen is a Greek-speaking Jew, then he is likely to be better educated than the 12 disciples, and he perhaps comes from a major city outside of Palestine. To the Jerusalem religious elite, the Galilean disciples of Jesus were probably regarded as a backwater rabble. But Stephen represents a greater threat: he is an articulate, educated outsider with radical ideas.

Unlike the Galilean apostles who worship and teach in the temple every day, Stephen is critical of the temple, which leads to his arrest and charges of blasphemy. In chapter 7 he makes his defense, undermining the legitimacy of the temple and accusing his fellow Jews of being in rebellion against God. The response of his listeners is hostile, but it is his visionary claim that leads to mob action and a lynching. He sees a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God and then claims that Jesus is “the Son of Man.” This title is rarely used by anyone but Jesus. It probably refers to Daniel 7:13 which depicts a person receiving all of God’s authority to rule over the earth forever. To be at the “right hand” of God means that one is in the position of Prime Minister, exercising all of the authority of the government. So Stephen is making the claim that Jesus is the ultimate Messiah who now has all of God’a authority and rules over all.

This claim is so offensive to the listeners that the trial is no longer a legal proceeding but devolves into a mob action. The Jewish authorities had no legal right to execute; they needed the Romans to carry out legal executions (hence Jesus’ own crucifixion). But Stephen’s death is different. It is, in effect, an illegal lynching, an act of passion by a mob who will not be stopped.

A young man named Saul (who will later become the principle character of this book), participates in the lynching. He looks after everyone’s coats while they are busy throwing rocks. Does he refrain from throwing rocks himself because he is squeemish? More likely, Saul is a somewhat sickly person or perhaps has bad eyesight. (His letter to the Galatians includes the line, “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” Did he have difficulty writing or seeing?)

Significantly, this mob action then results in a persection of many in the Jerusalem church–except for the apostles (8:1)! This is further evidence that the Jerusalem church had two different wings: an Aramaic-speaking group that was theologically moderate and considered less of a threat, and a Greek-speaking group that was more radical and suspect by the authorities.

Stephen’s death is the beginning of a long line of martyrs in the church which continues to this day. The good news of Jesus continues to be a threat: to the rich who want to keep an economic system in place that favors themselves, to the armed who use violent threats to get their way, to the religious who put rules above love, and to anyone who puts their own comfort ahead of the needs of all. Christians today in many places are attempting to be peacemakers and justice-makers; they often get criticized for meddling, and there is usually someone who hates change enough to be willing to kill in order to stop it. Unfortunately there are also many people who call themselves Christians who are part of the problem: supporting situations of oppression and rigidity.

When Stephen is being stoned, he does not hate or retaliate. He asks that his killers be forgiven, as Jesus also did. The true church never responds to violence with violence. We embody a new way, a healing way, demonstrated by Jesus.

As Stephen dies he prays similarly to Jesus: “receive my spirit.” But whereas Jesus directed his prayer to “Father,” Stephen directs his prayer to “Lord Jesus.” Jesus is now one with God, the face of God, the rescuing love of God.

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