Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Importance of Stephen Lesson 2: Stephen Arouses Opposition

The Importance of Stephen 
Biblical text: Acts, Chapters 6 and 7 
Primary extra-biblical source: The Book of Acts, F. F. Bruce, Rev. Ed., 1988.

Previous lessons in this series: 

To combat discrimination against the Hellenists is the early church, the apostles installed seven Hellenist men to minister. Today we call these men the first deacons, so I'll use that term. Among them is the spirit-filled Stephen.

At the time the seven were appointed, the Christians viewed themselves as Jews, and their belief that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus, was crucified died and buried, and was resurrected--this was merely the next phase of Judaism. As such they went to the Temple and observed the Sabbath, and then met the next day, the first day of the week, for a special meal of fellowship and remembrance.

The view of the Jewish officials, while not favorable, was surprisingly in agreement, in the sense that the Christians were viewed as (yet another) misguided sect of Judaism.

Among the early Christians there were more than a few temple priests, who (there is no indication to the contrary) continued their temple duties. So for this very early period (about to come to a screeching halt) the Christians were providentially protected by their misidentification as Jews. Rogue Jews perhaps, but nonetheless Jews.

To the Jews there was nothing more sacred on this earth than the temple. And no teaching more important than the Mosaic Law. Mess with those, and you are most definitely not a Jew. You are an apostate and a blasphemer.

Stephen is about to step onto that third rail.
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. (Acts 6:8-10)
At first, Stephen was no doubt a man of all the people, as his wonders and signs likely included healing. This would have afforded him great esteem, no matter how much he assured the people that the power was from God and not of himself.

We have here an intriguing (but impossible to prove) possibility of Stephen's (ordained) tactical error.

Stephen took his message to a synagogue of the those from Cilicia. There was a young student from Celicia, then "in town" studying with a famous Pharisee. The young student's name: Saul of Tarsus, Tarsus being the capital of Celicia. Did Saul hear Stephen's message in this synagogue? Is that possibly what set him off? We have no way of knowing. But somewhere along the way Stephen's message expanded to the point where he incited intense debate.

How did Stephen expand the message? He went beyond claiming that Jesus was the Messiah, which would have, in minds of many, lumped him into a long-line of "nutters" in Jewish history who followed this or that alleged Messiah--whose cults were forgotten as quickly as they arose. He expanded that curious-but-ultimately-harmless message by teaching of the logical ramifications of the finished work of Christ: the end of temple practices and the end of (at least much of if not all) the Mosaic law and customs.

This is not Judaism; it is altogether a new religion. This would not fall on receptive or even tolerant ears. Not with the chief priestly families. Not with the priests who had joined the Christians. And not with the people, for not only was the Temple sacred, it was the "region's biggest employer" so to speak. Many made their livings by supplying the massive needs of the Temple.

I don't think this needs a spoiler alert: This would not end well.

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