Maintaining The Unity Of The Community; The First Deacons (Servants); The Focus On Stephen, And His Wisdom And Miracles; Stephen’s Arguments With Men From The Synagogue Of The Freedmen; Lies Told Against Stephen; His Arrest And Trial Before The Sanhedrin
God-alienated, ruined, headed-for-Hell humanity is in the most desperate need of the salvation and help and rescuing that only the God of Israel can provide! And, praise the Lord, provide that deliverance from Satan, sin and death He has!
God the Father sent His eternal Son whom He loves on a great mission to save many fallen human beings. The Son of God left Heaven and through the incarnation, came into this world and became a man. The Son of God was born into the Chosen People. The young carpenter from Nazareth became Israel’s Messiah – our ultimate Prophet, Priest and King and Savior!
Rabbi Yeshua lived a perfect, sinless, Torah-observing, God-honoring life. Rabbi Yeshua taught us great truths, corrected the errors in the Judaism of His day, and was used by His Father to do tremendous miracles, showing He was close to God, and would be the miraculous Healer and Teacher and Helper and Leader and Savior of humanity.
Then, the Prince of Life accomplished His greatest work of all. The Son of God willingly allowed Himself to be whipped, beaten, spit on, humiliated, stripped naked and crucified! By dying in this way, the Messiah became the ultimate sacrifice to fully and completely atone for all of humanity’s sins, and end our alienation from our Creator.
After the Resurrected Rabbi revealed Himself to His disciples, and gave them further teaching, the Son of God returned to Heaven, to the place of greatest honor and authority – the right hand of God the Father. From there the Father and the Son poured out the Spirit They share on Yeshua’s disciples. With the empowering presence of the Spirit they would continue the Son of God’s great mission to save many of alienated humanity. Those first Messianic Jews became a unified and loving and worshiping and witnessing fellowship that would continue the Messiah’s great mission to bring the Good News of salvation to the world, starting with the Jewish people first.
It was a growing community! Starting in Jerusalem with 120, on Shavuot they had grown to 3,000. With the miracle that took place at the Yaffa (Beautiful) gate, the community had grown to 5,000. After that it grew by more hundreds and thousands.
And, it was a loving and caring community. The members of the community supported one another. Those who had material possessions sold them and brought the proceeds of the sales to the emissaries, and they would be distributed as anyone had need.
And, it was a purified community. As we saw with Annanias and Saphira, the tares were being weeded out to maintain the holiness and power and integrity of this Most Special Fellowship.
And, it was a community that was increasingly being opposed by the leaders of the nation, and isolated from the majority of the people. But in spite of that, the Messianic Yeshua-believing faithful remnant were boldly and courageously enduring!
Next, Luke tells us as they grew, a situation developed that had the potential to divide the community, and that would have been disastrous, not only for this Most Special Fellowship, but also for the salvation of the entire world! Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews (they were Jewish people born outside Israel in the Diaspora, and their native language was most likely Greek), against the native Hebrews (the Jewish people born in Israel, whose primary language was Hebrew), because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. Maintaining the precious unity of the community that was to carry on Messiah’s mission of salvation to the world was crucial! They couldn’t let geographic and cultural and language differences divide them. Everyone had to be treated fairly – Jews born inside Israel or outside Israel, Hebrew speaking or Greek speaking.
Yeshua’s Special Representatives knew about the problem, and understood that they had too many important responsibilities to directly deal with this situation of making sure that the daily distribution of food was done fairly. So the twelve summoned the congregation of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. These were the qualifications for those who were to be appointed to serve the apostles and the congregation. They had to be men (not women) who had a history of conducting themselves with integrity outside their homes and inside their homes. They had to be close to God and God had to be close to them. They had to be wise. They had to know the ways of the world and the ways of God, and be able to apply the principles of the Word of God to the various aspects of life.
The apostles had to give themselves fully to other spiritual responsibilities. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word”. It was more important that the emissaries spend their limited time in prayer, and preaching and teaching, rather than taking care of directly running the practical aspects of the community, like making sure that all those who needed to be fed were fed. Other godly men could do that. This is the origin of the office of deacon, or servant. They are men who assist the elders and serve the community by doing some of the practical tasks that need to be done.
The statement found approval with the whole congregation; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas, a proselyte (a Gentile who converted to Judaism by study and circumcision and baptism) from Antioch. Like the apostles, these leaders were all men. Six were Jews by birth and one was a Gentile who had converted to Judaism.
The Lord Yeshua chose His special twelve representatives. The community chose the deacons, but the choice of the community had to be confirmed by the apostles. The twelve ordained these seven servants and invested them with authority as leaders of their appointed tasks. The apostles did this in two ways: And these they brought before the emissaries; and after praying, they laid their hands on them. The servants were appointed by the prayers of the apostles, asking the Lord to empower them to fulfill their responsibilities and grant them success; and by the laying on of hands – touching with the hands being a symbol of closeness and approval and a sharing of authority.
Luke, who was a very good historian, gives us another progress report. The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the Faith. First 120, then 3000, then 5000, and now they were growing by hundreds and thousands more! And now, some of the religious leaders of the nation, the priests who served at the temple, and most likely Sadducees, were becoming Messianic Jews! Fantastic! Praise the Lord!
I like the way that Luke expresses the concept of an individual experiencing salvation. Experiencing salvation is the same as becoming obedient to the Faith. The expression, becoming obedient to the Faith, teaches us several things. First, the Faith is a set of essential beliefs, core doctrines and teachings that need to be known and then believed. If a person is to be saved, he must have knowledge about the basics of the Faith. Salvation is based on knowledge that a person is convinced is true.
Second, the Faith requires more than just a casual knowledge of the truth. The faith must be joined by obedience. The teachings need to be known and believed and then obeyed. They need to consistently be put into practice. Over the past hundred years, many of those in the Evangelical Church, particularly those who engage in evangelism, have minimized this becoming obedient to the Faith aspect of salvation. They seem to think everyone who prays the “sinners prayer” or prays to “accept the Lord” are really saved. But, from my experience, only a small percent of people who “pray the sinner’s prayer” or pray to “accept the Lord” actually experience salvation. Why? They are not told about becoming obedient to the Faith.
Last week I spoke to someone in our area who is engaged in evangelism, and he claimed that at a recent fair in Oakland County, he and his co-evangelists led 200 people to the Lord. That would be terrific – if it turned out to be true! In my more than 30 years of ministry, I have not led 200 people to the Lord, but this man and a few others supposedly did that in a few days! I challenged him, that if, a month from now, someone were able to check up on those 200, would there be 200 newly baptized members of good churches who are beginning to serve the Lord? Would there be 100? 50? 20?
Here is his response: “You asked me if I was sure that these people were going to attend a church as if that was the pivotal event that would prove their salvation. I say pooh-pooh to that…. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. I think that is all they need”.
Here’s what this individual doesn’t understand: just as talk is cheap, even so prayers can be cheap. If a “sinner’s prayer” is not followed up by the obedience of the Faith, which includes joining a New Covenant Community, being baptized, and starting to serve the Lord, then “praying the sinner’s prayer” or praying to “accept the Lord” means very little, because faith without works is dead.
When we present the Good News about salvation and eternal life, and encourage people to “accept the Lord”, or be saved, or be born again, we need to warn them about the obedience of the Faith and counting the cost of becoming a disciple. Genuine salvation means turning away from our sins and living a righteous and obedient life. It means opposition and persecution from an anti-God, anti-Messiah world. It means taking up our cross and carrying it toward a place of humiliation and execution. Our presentation of the Good News and God’s offer of salvation must include not just the positive aspects of salvation like Heaven and eternal life, but also the cost of salvation – in other words, telling people about their need to become obedient to the Faith. Becoming obedient to the Faith was an essential part of that greatest of New Covenant Communities, the Messianic Jewish Community in Jerusalem. May we follow the example they set for us and teach people the important of the obedience of the Faith!
Seven men were appointed to assist the Emissaries and serve the community. One was singled out because of the grace that was evident in his life as shown by his closeness to God, and his faith and wisdom and the miracles he was enabled to do, and because of the opposition he stirred up, and because of the great message he gave to the Sanhedrin, and because he became the first among Messiah’s Community to be killed by the non-Messianic leaders, and because of the faithful way in which he died, and because his martyrdom was the launching point for the first great persecution against the Messianic Jewish movement. Ever since that time, persecution, even martyrdom, has been part of the experience of Messiah’s Holy Community.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Like God was using Yeshua’s 12 representatives to do signs and wonders, the Lord was using Stephen to do many miracles.
But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia (this was a synagogue that seems to have been made up mostly of Jewish people from the Diaspora), rose up and argued with Stephen. But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Stephen was no doubt teaching that Yeshua was the Messiah, and reinforcing his arguments with proofs from the Scriptures like those we have already seen in the book of Luke and Acts.
And, if an argument can’t be won by truth that is backed by reason and logic, people of bad character often will resort to insults, name calling, character assassination and lies – as they did here. Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God”. These false witnesses claimed that Stephen had said insulting and shameful things about the Holy Creator and His divinely inspired prophet Moses, whom God used to write the foundation of Israel’s religion – the Torah. According to the Torah, blasphemy was a very serious crime that could be punished by death.
These lies were designed to infuriate the people of Jerusalem and get Stephen in very serious trouble – which they did. And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes (experts in the Divinely Inspired Writings), and they came up to him and dragged him away and brought him before the Council.
First Peter and John had been brought before the Sanhedrin, and they had spoken boldly and courageously and passed their test. Then the twelve were arrested and tried before the Council, and then whipped, and they too they had boldly and courageously endured. Now Stephen, not one of the twelve, and all alone, faced the 70 leaders who made up Israel’s highest political and religious authority. Would he be intimidated? Would he agree to remain silent? Would he deny the Faith? Would he set an example that would discourage the rest of the community, and set back the great advances that were being made? Or, would he stand firm?
They put forward false witnesses who said, “This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Torah; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Yeshua, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us”. They were lying, twisting Stephen’s words to try and make them say something else. Stephen might have said that Yeshua was greater than the temple, and fulfilled the Temple and the sacrifices, Himself being the Dwelling Place of God on Earth and the Ultimate Sacrifice. Stephen, echoing Rabbi Yeshua, may have predicted a day was coming when the Temple would be destroyed. Stephen might have taught that Yeshua alone of all humanity fulfilled the Torah, and that with the coming of the Son of God, we needed to acknowledge Him and His teachings, and that He had instituted a New Covenant between God and Israel; and that faithful Jews need to allow for the new wine of Messiah’s coming to be put into new wine skins – but Stephen taught these truths in such a way that upheld the divine origins of the temple and Torah, and the holiness of the temple, and the Torah.
Stephen had been accused of very serious charges of blasphemy against God, Moses, the Torah and the temple. He would need to answer the charges and defend himself before the Sanhedrin. That would not be easy. This was a very challenging situation. His freedom, even his life, was at stake. Was Stephen anxious? Upset? Fearful? Ready to cave into the pressure? Not at all! Luke tells us: And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel. Stephen’s face was like the face of one of God’s good angels – calm, wise, joyous, serious, confident and full of peace because he really knew the Lord and was close to the Creator and trusted in his God. In the midst of this very difficult trial, Stephen was not anxious or fearful. Instead, he was experiencing the peace that passes human understanding.
Each one of us will face challenges in life – and maybe some will be very difficult, like Stephen’s was. May the Lord enable us to face our challenges with the same grace and calmness and composure! May the Maker of Heaven and Earth make each one of us more and more like this great man! Full of faith and the Holy Spirit, knowledgeable about the Word of God, close to God, powerful, wise, a great witness to the reality of Messiah Yeshua, experiencing the true obedience of the Faith, calm and peaceful under times of trial and pressure! And when we as individuals become more like Stephen, I am sure that the Lord will add more and more men and women, Jews and Gentiles, to our community.