Lesson 15: Stephen Brought to the Council
In this lesson we would like to cover the rest of Chapter 6 of Acts. This section has to do with Stephen, one of the seven deacons of the Jerusalem church appointed in the first of this chapter. Let's read v. 8;
And Stephen, foil of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
This verse might be paraphrased by saying, Stephen was a great teacher and he did miracles. Thus, we find Stephen is the first recorded, outside the apostles, to do wonders and miracles similar to what the apostles had done. When and how he received this power from the Holy Spirit, we are not told. Some will, no doubt, advocated it has to do with the last part of v. 6 above. It could have. But it does not say that in v. 6. Let's read verses 9 -10.
Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.
Try to get the picture here! Stephen was teaching and debating in a synagogue. This is the first time we have run across this word "synagogue" in the book of Acts. A synagogue was an institution of Jewish worship, a place of assembly. It is NOT mentioned in the Old Testament. I had apparently come into being during the Babylonian exile, when the Jews found themselves captives in a foreign land and no access to the temple in Jerusalem. After they were released from bondage and worship was restored in the temple, the institution called the synagogue, was also continued. Synagogues were found scattered in foreign lands, any place Jewish communities or settlements were located. It was a place of instruction, where children and adults could learn the Jewish law. It was a place for funerals and weddings and other social functions. Each synagogue usually had copies of the Old Testament books. That was before the days of printing, of course, and books (or scrolls) they had were handwritten copies. Books of that kind were very expensive, so a copy was maintained at the synagogue and not in their homes, as the Bible is usually found today. There had to be at least 10 adult, Jewish, male members to have a synagogue. The worship in the synagogue consisted of reading from the Law, i.e. the Old Testament, preaching and prayer. The synagogue leaders were usually some of the most informed Jews around. This was the sect of the Pharisees, they prided themselves on knowing and keeping the law to the letter. They were steeped in tradition and customs. Jesus told them.
Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. (Matthew 15:6)
There must have been many synagogues in and around Jerusalem. It was one of these synagogues, operated by the Grecian Jews (take note!!!) where Stephen was teaching and debating. It was most likely, his home synagogue, i.e. the place where he had assembled and worshiped in the Jews religion before he was converted to Christ. The word "Libertines" in the King James Version is translated "Freedmen" in some other translations. Those of this synagogue were apparently, former slaves, i.e. freed men. The Living Bible is a paraphrase, not a translation, but I would like to read v. 9 from it.
"But one day some of the men from the Jewish cult of the "The Freedmen" started an argument with him, and they were soon joined by Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria in Egypt, and the Turkish provinces of Cilicia and Asia." I trust you get the picture, Stephen was likely a foreign Jew by birth, this synagogue where Stephen was disputing was made up of similar people, knowledgeable foreign Jews, except of course, the were NOT converted to Christ, as Stephen was. Naturally, Stephen was trying to teach them and convert them. That's what all the disputing was about. We have already read in v. 10, how Stephen was getting their goat. Have you notices how some people will go as far as they can on logic and then they get mad, when they start losing ground. They are not the good soil, they are not the good and honest heart Jesus talked about in the parable of the sower. In other words, when they get new and better information they won't accept it. They like what they have and they don't want to adjust their position. They don't want to adjust their position so they must depart from logic and use that one-sided thinking that we have talked about before. It's like killing the mailman because he brought you a message you don't like. Let's read verses 11 and 12.
Then they suborned men, which said, we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council.
Did you get the last statement? They brought Stephen before the council. Here we go again. It was the apostles before, but now it's a deacon, Stephen. Wouldn't you hate to face that prejudice court? The word 'suborned' in v. 11 is probably a word you are not familiar with. It means literally to secretly equip or to give false testimony. Thus you see, they secretly equipped some men to give false testimony against Stephen. That's another way of saying they lied or distorted the facts. The quotation in v. 11 is the distorted testimony they gave. Incidentally, I trust that you are aware, the King James Version translators did not use quotation marks, as we do today. Instead, it was the custom in those days, the early 1600's to capitalize the first word in the quotation and no convention was used at the end. Notice, in v. 11 the word 'We' is capitalized, thus the beginning of a quotation. It's a little confusing to those who are not familiar with it. Now, the quotation given of the false testimony of these suborned men was:
We have heard him speak blasphemous words again Moses, and against God.
The phrase 'blasphemous words' means to curse. Thus, their testimony was that they heard Stephen curse God and Moses. Now that's a little ridiculous. But, I trust you're aware blasphemy against God was an offense punishable by death under the Law ofMoses—I speak of Leviticus 24:16. Thus, I call your attention, a little distortion can be deadly, don't forget it. You will remember the Sadducees were the ones who brought the charges before. They made no attempt to prove or disprove anything the apostles said. They simply said: don't you teach in this name anymore! They implied, because WE said so. You will recall Gamaliel was a Pharisee, his speech appealed to logic. The friction between the Sadducees and the Pharisees before has actually been in the apostles favor, although there had been no public show of their disagreements in court.
Now, I trust you caught on, Stephen stirred up the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, this time. You can see, the Pharisees use different techniques that the Sadducees. Remember, the Pharisees pride themselves on knowing the law. They are more sly than the Sadducees. They have stealthy tactics. It is interesting also to notice, they narrowed the charge down to one man, Stephen, so as to deal with him independently. The apostles were teaching the same thing Stephen was teaching. But you see, the masses of the Jews, respected the Christians. So you see, they can deal with one man without running as must risk of upsetting the masses. The quotation in v. 11, as I said before, is the false actual words. But, I don't think one would have to be a detective to see, Stephen was teaching the Law ofMoses was replaced by Christ's Law. That is, God gave the Law ofMoses, the 10 Commandment Law, to the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai as their law or schoolmaster to bring them to Christ. Christ's law replaced or superseded the Law given through Moses. We have been through this argument before in this study. However, I think it is only fair to make you aware that this problem is still with us today. Some who claim to be following Christ today are still trying to keep the 10 Commandment Law. Some say they are keeping both, Christ's law and the 10 Commandment Law. That's really impossible, but that's what they say. Do you remember the quotation from Moses, that Peter used on Solomon's porch, Acts 3:22 - 23? If you don't, I suggest you re-read it. Do you remember in Matthew 5, toward the end of the chapter, Jesus, in the sermon on the mount, 6 times after quoting or paraphrasing one of the 10 Commandments said,
But I say unto you.
Then he gave the law that superseded that 10 Commandment Law. Paul expressed it in this way in Galatians 3: 24-25,
Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are not longer under the schoolmaster.
Can it be said plainer than that? The New Testament is filled with statements of this kind. For example, only five verses before the quotation, I just read, Paul said, (I quote from Galatians 3:19)
Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, TILL the seed should come.
Verse 16, three verses above that, defines the 'seed' as Christ. Some people today get about as upset as those Jews in the synagogue of the Libertines did, when they discover this. Of course, most people are not that way, there are a lot of good and honest hearts in this old world today, all they want is to know is the facts, v. 12, we have already read. They stirred up the people, especially the ones on the council and brought Stephen before the council. OK for the 3rd time we find another of Christ's followers before the Jewish council, standing in that same spot where Jesus stood when the chief priests and elders took counsel to put Jesus to death. Now, see if you can get this association in perspective. This was a Grecian synagogue, located in or around Jerusalem. Those synagogue leaders could not,resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake, (v. 10)
So they suborned men to give false testimony and stirred up the scribes and the elders and brought Stephen before the council. This litigation consumes the remainder of Chapter 6 and all of Chapter 7. This is the 3rd time in our study we have observed the council in session. You will recall the high priest is the chairman of this council. He was of the sect of the Sadducees and the Sadducees had brought the charges before. This time the charges are brought by the Pharisees. Now, I would assume, when the council had assembled and Stephen was standing before the court, the high priest either asked or motioned for the charges to be read or stated. The quotation in v. 13-14 is a formal statement of the charges. The false witnesses that had been groomed for this job stood and read the charges:
This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous works against this holy place and the law: for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.
As you try to analyze this, notice the basic charge consists of the quotation in v. 13. Verse 14 is an elaboration upon this charge. A paraphrase of the basic charge would be: "Stephen continually curses the temple and the law." Notice this does not include the statement that was used to stir up the people, i.e. that he cursed God. That statement was used to stir up the elders and the scribes, also. You see the elders and scribes sat on this council, so they had heard the charges that be blasphemed God, although it was not formally stated here. Whether the statement as it stands in v. 13 would have been sufficient to justify the death penalty, had it been proven true, according to the Law of Moses, is a good question; that I am not lawyer enough to answer. I get the impression from reading this, they though so anyhow.
Now, the elaboration in v. 14: the witnesses claimed they had heard Stephen say two things. First that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple. I would assume, the words, "this place" referred to the temple and not Jerusalem, although the antecedent is not absolutely clear. Second, they claimed Stephen had said that Jesus of Nazareth would change the customs which Moses delivered. With reference to the first, destroying the temple, you may remember, this same charge was brought against Jesus and then by false witnesses, when Jesus was standing right where Stephen is now standing, according to Matthew 26:60. It would seem, according to the position of the Pharisees, if Jesus was NOT the Messiah such a charge would have been humorous; to be consistent with their view. This may tell us something about their subconscious convictions. There is both misunderstandings and distortion in the charge. I assume the seeds of this misunderstanding came about like this. After Jesus drove the money changers and the merchandisers out of the temple, in John Chapter 2, the Jews wanted a SIGN from him; i.e. to prove he was the Messiah. Jesus told them this;
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spoke of the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21).
This ware really a prophecy with reference to Jesus' death and resurrection, a sign, that is what they asked for. Notice, the distortion: Jesus told them THEY would do the destroying. He would do the raising up. The charge, against Stephen is;
We have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place.
If the charge included Jerusalem, as well as the temple, then the seeds of the misunderstanding could have come from the prophecy which Jesus made about Jerusalem as he stood on the mount of Olives with the multitude in what is sometimes referred to as the triumphal entry, when he rode the colt into the city. As the stood there on Mt. Olivet and looked across the valley toward Jerusalem, Jesus said sorrowfully, with reference to Jerusalem:
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee around, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another. (Luke 19:43-44)
This prophecy foretold the war of AD 70, in which about 40 years later the Romans did destroy Jerusalem and the temple. The temple was never rebuilt to this day. This prophecy is given in much greater detail in Matthew Chapter 24. But, did you notice in this prophecy Jesus said:
thine enemies shall
be the destroyer. So, the charge before the council is distorted. No doubt, Stephen may have quoted one of these prophecies of Jesus, if not both, when disputing in the synagogue. The second part of the elaboration in v. 14, that Jesus,
shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.
again is a distortion. The word 'custom' here is used to mean the Law of Moses. It could not mean oral tradition as it sometimes does, because Moses did not deliver that. It had been developed since the time of Moses. The distortion is, Jesus did not say he would change or destroy the law. He said he came to fulfill the law. (Matthew 5:17) I hope you understand the difference. The Law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, as we sometimes call it, was an agreement or covenant or testament or contract imposed upon the Jews by God. It was NOT a treaty, in the sense that the Jews negotiated it. As I said, it was imposed by God. The only prerogative they had was they could keep it or they could break it. The law was temporary according to Galatians 3:19. When it was fulfilled, it was finished. When a contract is carried out, then it is fulfilled, NOT broken or changed. For example, if I make a contract with you, to build you a house AND I build the house, then I fulfilled my contract. If I did NOT build the house, then I would have broken or destroyed the contract. If I built a barn instead, the I would have changed the contract or altered the contract. If I built only half of the house and then did not complete it, I would NOT have fulfilled my contract. Jesus said:
one jot or one title shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18)
We would say that like this: Not one dotting of the "I" or crossing of the "T" shall be left our, the contract will be completely carried out. God imposed the Old Testament until the New Testament was in force. Hebrews 10:9 says that like this:
He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.
Stephen apparently tried to teach the Jews about the new covenant. It had been prophesied by Moses and all the prophets. The Jews would not accept that. So they distorted Stephen's words to say that Jesus shall change the Law of Moses. Now, these Pharisees considered that blasphemy, or cursing Moses and his law. So, that's the charge! Have you got it? Let's read v. 15;
And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.
Stephen kept a pleasant countenance or facial expression. He must have stood there as if he had all the confidence in the world, yes as humble as he could be. This must have caused the councilmen to observe him very closely while the charges were presented. It would be interesting here to know where the 12 apostles were, but the Spirit did not see fit to inform us. Let's read the first verse of chapter 7.
Then said the high priest, Are these things so?
That's like saying, "guilty" or "not guilty"? Stephen is then permitted to speak in his own defense. We'll cover and consider Stephen's reply in lesson 16.