THE GENERAL SITUATION
Great things were happening in Jerusalem in these days of which Luke writes in the “Acts Of The Apostles.” Christ was continuing from out of heaven what he had begun in the days of his flesh upon earth! Strictly speaking, these are not the acts of the Apostles, but the work of Christ through them by his power and Spirit. It was, indeed, becoming more and more evident that this was “of God”, and that there was no power of man, no opposition of unbelief, no decree of despots and no anathema of the Sanhedrin which could or did alter the course of the Gospel, or frustrate its purpose. The gates of hell could not prevail against it.
Up to this time the church was being mightily and irresistibly gathered by the Son of God in the ancient city of David, Jerusalem. However, she would be gathered in an ever greater radius, in ever widening circle, beginning at Jerusalem, then to Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8) Luke relates of a twofold futile attempt on the part of the ruling caste in Jerusalem to stop the Gospel-course by casting the preachers into prison, only to find that the Lord was with these unlearned fisher-men. He sent His angel to miraculously deliver them from prison and its closed doors. (Acts 4:1-22; Acts 5:11-44). The outcome was that a Gamaliel gives the rather prudent counsel that it is better to leave well enough alone; that if it is from God they can do nothing, and if it is from man it will come to nought, as all false messianic attempts at liberation had in the past!
These were the days of the great Reformation in Israel from the shackles of the law. Christ had gone to heaven, and the heavens did receive him until the times of the restitution of all things. (Hebrews 9:10; Acts 3:21) All things will be set in proper order according to the image of the heavenly as shown to Moses by the Lord Himself on the mount. (Exodus 25:40; Acts 7:44, Hebrews 8:5) The Lord had suddenly come to His temple and the old shadows had been fulfilled: the temple had been broken down by men and Christ had rebuilt it in three days. It was the day of the salvation of God when Japheth would dwell in the tents of Shem, and all nations be blessed in Abraham. (Genesis 9:27; Genesis 12:3) These were days when the old paths would be sought once more and the violent would take the Kingdom by force.
Truly the poor had the Gospel preached to them! Meanwhile the corrupt Israel would have their house desolate to them. (Matthew 23:38) Unbelievers would live in utter desolation, while the Lord from heaven would grant the times of refreshment to bedew His true Israel, granting them faith and conversion from heaven. Truly this is a Reformation which eclipses that of Hezekiah, for now Jerusalem shall be on the top of the mountains, and the true worshippers shall worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth, and the church out of all nations shall come to Zion!
The kingdom of God had come upon Israel!
Great is the glory of the Lord in the land of Emanuel!
THE SITUATION AT THE TIME OF STEPHEN
Yes, there was no slackening in the gathering of the church. In fact, it was rather a matter which went from strength to strength. We read the notice in Acts 6:7 that “the Word of God was growing.” It was growing in its efficacious power in the hearts of the elect. Men and women and children were being called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light and were being made a chosen generation, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a peculiar treasure to the Lord. God’s covenant was being realized in the hearts of men, so that they believed with the heart and confessed with their mouth. They were being saved, as many as were ordained to eternal life.
Hand in hand with this internal and efficacious growth was also an increase in the number of those who were saved. Jerusalem was seeing something which many prophets had foretold and desired to see. Says Luke “the number in Jerusalem increased greatly.” It was an exceedingly great growth. There was holy violence of heaven being manifested. How else could it be explained that many of the priests, of those who were of the regular order of the temple service were “obedient to the faith”? It was too undeniably true, and gave cause for the enemy of the Church, those who despised the Cross, to reflect. It was all due to preaching Jesus and the resurrection, by which he was powerfully revealed and set forth as the Son of God. (Romans 1:4) From the humble amongst Israel through the hierarchy of the priesthood at the altar, the Lord was gathering his saints from the Old Testament church and giving them a place in the fulfillment. For that is the meaning of “faith”. It refers not to subjective faith but to the objective faith of what is believed. This clearly also in such passages as Galatians 1:23; Romans 1:5 and Jude 1:3.
Not only were the Hebrew Jews gathered but also the Grecian Jews were gathered. These were the Hellenists. They were Jews of the western dispersion, who were carried away under Pompey to the several cities of Asia Minor and Europe, and who learned the common Greek language, known as the Koine! Amongst these Grecians there were also widows in the church at Jerusalem, and it seems that these widows were not being cared for as they should at the tables. There arose a murmuring amongst the congregation because of these widows, Measures were taken to correct this. Deacons were appointed, seven in number, who were all evidently Hellenistic Jews, as appears from their names: Stephen, Phillip, Prochorus, Nikanorus, Timon, Parmenos and Nicalaus. They were men of good report and full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom.
We know from our Chapter that there were synagogues too of these Hellenists, Grecian Jews. These were from Cyrene in Africa, from whence can the well-known Simon of Cyrene; they were from Alexan Alexandria in Egypt where the Septuagint Bible was translated (The Hebrew into the Greek); they were from Cilicia and Asia both in Asia Minor.
Such was the situation in the church at Jerusalem, the mother-church, so to speak. And it is against this background that we must understand the place of Stephen in God’s church, and the transition, which Stephen’s preaching, trial and death form, in the history of the church at this point. For the Gospel course from here on will be to Judea, Samaria and even to the ends of the earth. Here we see that the Greeks, who would see Jesus, will have the Gospel proclaimed in their home-land. And in a course which is at once natural, and still most supernatural, will the great preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles come to be called in the church. Saul of Tarsus will be led by the Lord through this history to the apostleship; him who was a persecutor and injurious we will see, in this trial of Stephen in which the latter makes his great apology! And they “cast their clothing at the feet of a young man named Saul” Acts 7:58
STEPHEN BROUGHT TO TRIAL
Stephen had been brought by the Lord into the front ranks of the preachers. He had been chosen a deacon being accounted “full of wisdom and of the Spirit.” But the Lord made something more of Stephen. He gave him “grace and power.” This evidently refers to special gifts of grace which are sometimes called charismatic gifts! These were not simply the grace of the forgiveness of sins and joy in the Lord, but the ability to perform signs and wonders, such as opening the eyes of the blind, healing the sick, raising the dead to life in the power of Christ as did Peter and John. These works were “wonders” causing amazement and awe and they were positive “signs” which spoke of the great grace of salvation, that the day of salvation had come from the Day-spring from on High.
Gauging Stephen’s preaching by his interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures in his “apology” before the Sanhedrin, there can be no doubt but what Stephen must have preached already which Paul later writes and develops in such epistles as Romans and Galatians and in other of his letters.
It has been suggested by some, and perhaps not amiss, that Saul was in the audience of Stephen, a Hellenist, when the latter preached in Jerusalem the resurrection of Christ, touching upon the broader implications of the meaning of Israel’s history in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, namely, that God had fulfilled the promise made to the fathers unto us the children, through the resurrection of Christ from the dead. If so, then Paul must have been violently confronted with the “faith,” in opposition to the works of law as a Pharisee, which works he later will account to be so much loss and dung for the sake of the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, our Lord. (Phil. 3:8)
Such a Stephen must be stopped in his tracks!
He is attacked by certain men from the resident Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. The Greek text shows that there are two groups here referred to, The one group is from the synagogue of the Libertines and Cyrenians and Alexandrians; the other group are from Cilicia and Asia. The Libertines were “freedmen and their descendants, the Latin libertine. The term is geographical like the rest, for to hear it mentioned was to think of Rome, whither two generations before, in 61 B.C., Pompey had taken many hundreds of captive Jews who were sold as slaves. Numbers of them and their descendants gained their liberty and were considered Romans. They were rapidly Hellenized.” (Lenski). These together with the Cilicians, Alexandrians and those of Asia Minor, were residents now at Jerusalem; and accost Stephen. Perhaps it was on the street that they meet him, or went to look for him. And they come to debate on the meaning of Israel’s existence, the intent of the temple and of the ceremonial laws given by Moses. They were many. They outnumber Stephen. Perhaps Saul of Tarsus was also in the fray and tried his learning, which he acquired at the feet of Gamaliel, against Stephen. If so, he had reasons to look back upon it as so much worthlessness which he had sought to defend so futilely and fruitlessly!
What was the secret of the power and insight of this Stephen?
Stephen was speaking, both in his preaching and in his debate, by a wisdom which is from above. It was the wisdom of God in the spiritual man who has the mind of Christ. It was revealed to him by the Holy Spirit who gave him to see all things in the light of Christ. He takes it out of Christ and gives it to Stephen. Christ had opened the Scriptures unerringly and that, too, because he had received the Spirit without measure. This same Spirit is in Stephen. For this Spirit these Hellenists, even though they had all the learning of Jewry, were no match. The debate was too unequal. These antagonists were overcome!
In their futility they will bring Stephen before the Sanhedrin.