December 30, 2013

Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles

By: Tom Lowe

 

Topic #II: The Church in Jerusalem, Acts 2.1-8.3

            Subtopic E. The Climax of the Persecution in Jerusalem: Stephen Killed (6:8-8:3).                                                    

 

 

Lesson II.E.1: Stephen Brought Before a Council (6:8-15)    

      

 

Acts 6.8-15 (KJV)

 

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.

9 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.

10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

11 Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.

12 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,

13 And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:

14 For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.

15 And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

 

 

Introduction

Stephen was a poor, uncultured layman who was honored with the office of deacon because he was “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom”; and as such he was permitted to sweep the floor, and light the lamps, and collect money for the support of widows and the poor. And like all of the disciples in the Apostolic age [“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).], he preached the Word of God. He did not have to get a license; the apostles didn’t have one, nor did anyone else. The short-sighted clergymen who invented license had not yet been born. Stephen is identified with those Hellenistic synagogues in which the Greek language is spoken, and he goes about preaching in them with all his might. The representatives of these synagogues had been dispersed to live in all heathen lands, but they had come to Jerusalem to attend the great Jewish feast of Pentecost. By divine intervention, this Pentecost was miraculously and unexpectedly transformed into the most memorable revival the world ever saw and is memorialized by the incarnation of the Holy Ghost, and the dawn of the Gospel message. The representatives (or delegates) of these synagogues were the Libertines, namely, the freed people, consisting of Jews who had been transported to Rome as slaves, but afterward liberated by the Emperors. The noteworthy Libertines were Cyrenians from Cyrene, a large city in northern Africa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where there were many Jews; the Alexandrians, from the city of Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, where the Jews dwelt in great numbers and were greatly encouraged by Ptolemy Philadelphus, who had the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint, for the benefit of his Jewish subjects; and the Greek-speaking Jews from Cilicia and Asia.

 

 

Commentary

8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.

And Stephen, full of faith and power,

Stephen, who was the first of seven men chosen for the office of deacon, had a strong faith (confidence in God), by which he was enabled to do extraordinary things. Those who are full of faith are full of power, because, by faith the power of God is engaged for us. The remarkable death of this first Christian martyr, which occurred soon after the remarkable events that took place on the Day of Pentecost, prompted the sacred writer (Dr. Luke) to give a detailed account of his character, of his faith and miracles, of his elocution and wisdom, of his courage and daring, of his faithfulness, and of his suffering and of the circumstances which led to his martyrdom. He is said here to be full of faith, just as before [“. . . They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism” (Acts 6:5.]. He had an uncommon share of faith; it was exceedingly abundant in him; he had a sufficient amount of it for the service and sufferings he was called to: and he was full of power to preach the Gospel, and teach it the people, which he did with authority; to defend it, and oppose the adversaries of it; to endure rebuke and indignities for it, and even death itself; and to do miraculous works for the confirmation of it.

 Up till now the opposition of the Jews had been confined to threats and imprisonment; but now it burst forth with furious rage that could only be satisfied with blood. This was the first in a series of persecutions against Christians which filled the church with blood, and which ended the lives of thousands, perhaps a million, who were involved in the great work of establishing the gospel on the earth.

 

It should be pointed out that some good translations have “grace” instead of faith—the Alexandrian copy, and four of Beza's copies read, "full of grace"; and so do the Vulgate Latin and Syriac versions; the Ethiopic version reads, "full of the grace of God":

 

Did great wonders and miracles among the people.

Stephen “did great wonders and miracles among the people”—and they were done openly, and in the sight of all, for he, like Christ, didn’t fear even the strictest scrutiny of his miracles. We don’t need not wonder how Stephen, though not an apostle, was able to do these great wonders; for the gifts of the Spirit were divided among the disciples as God pleased: and the power of working miracles was a gift distinct from that of prophesying or preaching, and was bestowed on some to whom the latter was not given [“to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Corinthians 12:10-11)]. And our Lord promised that the signs of miracles should not only follow them that preached, but them that believed [“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues” (Mark 16:17)]. 

No record of specific signs has come down to us; but the fact that they are called "great" proves that they were miracles of the first magnitude. Stephen was a man with a very noble character and the mightiest ability, and he is said to be "the morning star who ushered in the dawn of St. Paul's ministry!" This verse provides the first indication of miracles worked by any (of our Lord's followers) except the apostles of the Lord Jesus. Even these signs, however, were not done entirely apart from the apostles, because it was through the laying on of their hands that Stephen had received such powers.

Evidently a man like Stephen would not confine his “ministry” to “serving tables.” He was called in Acts 6:5 “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” He was a sudden whirlwind of power operating in the very realm where Peter and John and the rest.

“Wonders” is one of the words commonly used in the New Testament to denote miracles, such as speaking with divers tongues, healing diseases, casting out devils, etc.

9 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.

Then there arose certain of the synagogue.

The Jews were scattered throughout the known world, and in every place they lived they spoke the language used in that country, and wherever they were present in sufficient numbers there would have been synagogues. It’s probable that there would be enough foreign Jews residing at Jerusalem from each of those places to maintain the worship of the synagogue in their native tongue; and at the great feasts, those synagogues adapted to Jewish people of different nations and languages would be attended by those who came up to Jerusalem to attend the great feasts. It is certain that there was a large number of synagogues in Jerusalem. The common estimate is, that there were four hundred and eighty in the city (Lightfoot; Vitringa). But observe that it says Synagogue, not Synagogues, which implies a single place frequented by the various persons mentioned below; but whether there was one or many Synagogues involved in this episode is "of no special importance."

 “Certain” men who belonged to that synagogue and were opposed to him, being filled with indignation at the doctrine of Stephen, and envious of his miracles, rose up in great wrath, and hotly opposed him.

Which is called the synagogue of the libertines.

The “Libertines” (Latin libertinus, a freedman or the son of a freedman) were Jews who were once slaves of Rome (perhaps descendants of the Jews taken to Rome as captives by Pompey), or Jews whose parents were born free, or had obtained their freedom at Rome, or were born in some free city under the Roman government, such as Paul at Tarsus; but were set free and settled in Jerusalem and were numerous enough to have a synagogue of their own, since they could not speak the language of the native Jews. There were many Synagogues there, but whether there were 480, as mentioned, no one knows. These places of worship and study were in all the cities where there were Jews enough to maintain one. Luke speaks here of five such synagogues in Jerusalem (that of the Libertines, of the Cyrenians, of the Alexandrians, of Cilicia, and of Asia). There probably were enough Hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) in Jerusalem to have synagogues of their own. But the language of Luke is not clear on this point. But, leaving the number of the synagogues unsettled, it is certain that in each one where Stephen appeared as a Hellenist preaching Jesus as the Messiah he met opposition. Some of them “arose” or “stood up” after they had heard all that they could stand from him, and began “disputing with Stephen.” Such interruptions were common with Jews. They gave a skillful speaker the opportunity to reply if he has a quick wit. Evidently Stephen was fully equipped for this emergency. One of their synagogues had men from Cilicia in it, making it practically certain that young Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant student of Gamaliel, was present and tried his best to match wits with Stephen. His humiliating defeat may be one explanation of his involvement in the stoning of Stephen [“And Saul was there, giving approval to his death . . .” (Acts 8:1).].

A great many of the Christians in those early years were slaves, which is indicated by their names as given in Romans 16; but the Libertines had been freed. The places named below refer to non-Palestinian areas of the Roman Empire populated by Jews of the Diaspora (dispersion). Alexandria, if you exclude Rome and Jerusalem, was the largest Jewish city of antiquity; and Cyrene and Cilicia might have been mentioned by Luke because of their connection of Rufus, Alexander, and Simon with those cities, and the fact of Paul's being from Tarsus, the principal city of Cilicia. If we assume that there was only one synagogue, it would follow that the members of it were from these various nations.

There has been a very great difference of opinion about the meaning of this word, “Libertines.” The principal opinions, though, may be reduced to these three:

1.       The word is Latin, and means a “freedman,” a man who had been a slave and was set free. Many have supposed that these persons were manumitted (manumit means to release from slavery or servitude) slaves of Roman origin, but who had become proselyted to the Jewish religion, and who had a synagogue in Jerusalem. This opinion is not very probable; though it is certain, from Tacitus (Ann., lib. 2:c. 85), that there were many persons of this description at Rome. He says that 4,000 Jewish proselytes of freed Roman slaves were sent to Sardinia at one time.

2.      A second opinion is, that these persons were Jews by birth, and had been captured by the Romans, and then given their freedom, and were for that reason called “freedmen” or “liberties.” There can be no doubt that there were many Jews of this description. Pompey the Great, when he conquered Judea, sent large numbers of the Jews to Rome (Philo, In Legat. a.d. Caium). These Jews were set free at Rome, and assigned a place beyond the Tiber for a residence. These persons, according to Philo, were called “libertines,” or “freedmen.” Many Jews were also conveyed as captives by Ptolemy I. to Egypt, and obtained a residence in that country.

3.      Another opinion is that they took their name from some “place” where they dwelt. This opinion is more probable from the fact that all the “other” persons mentioned here are named for the countries which they occupied. Suidas says that this is the name of a place. And in one of the fathers this passage occurs: “Victor, Bishop of the Catholic Church at Libertina, says, unity is there, etc.” From this passage it is clear that there was a place called “Libertina.” That place was in Africa, not far from ancient Carthage. See Dr. Pearce‘s Commentary on this place.

And Cyrenians.

Cyrenians were Jews who were from “Cyrene” in Africa, where many Jews lived [“Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene . . .” (Acts 2:10)]; some of the most noteworthy being Simon the Cyrenian, the father of Alexander, and Rufus, who carried the cross of Christ [“A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21)]. These Cyrenians along with those that follow, either belonged to the same synagogue along with the Libertines, or instead, they had their own distinct synagogues: and this should not seem surprising, since it is said that there were four hundred and eighty synagogues in Jerusalem.

 

And Alexandrians.

“Alexandrians” were the inhabitants of Alexandria in Egypt. That city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., and was populated by colonies of Greeks and Jews. It was one of the great cities of that time, and contained not less than 300,000 free citizens, and as many slaves. The city was the residence of many Jews. Josephus says that Alexander himself assigned to them a particular quarter of the city, and allowed them equal privileges with the Greeks. Philo asserts that the Jews inhabited two of the five parts of the city, and that there dwelt in his time at Alexandria and the other Egyptian cities not less than “ten hundred thousand Jews.” Amron, the general of Omar, when he took the city, said that it contained 40,000 tributary Jews. It was in Alexandria that the famous version of the Old Testament called the “Septuagint,” or the Alexandrian version, was put together. Undoubtedly, the Alexandrians had their own synagogue(s) at Jerusalem; since that is specifically mentioned in Jewish writings: it is said:

1.       “the house of Garmu were expert in making of the shewbread, and they would not teach it; the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they knew how to bake as well as they. The house or family of Abtines were expert in the business of the incense, and they would not teach it; the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they knew how to mix the spices as well as they.”

2.      “there was a brass cymbal in the sanctuary, and it was cracked, and the wise men sent and brought workmen from Alexandria in Egypt, and they mended it---and there was a mortar in which they beat spices, and it was cracked, and the wise men sent and fetched workmen from Alexandria, and they mended it.”

And of them of Cilicia.

Cilicia” was a province of Asia Minor, on the seacoast, at the north of Cyprus. The capital of this province was Tarsus, the home city of Paul [“The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11).]. Since Paul was from this place [“Paul answered, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people" (Acts 21.39).], and no doubt belonged to this synagogue, it is probable that he was one of those who was engaged in this dispute with Stephen [“At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:57, 58).]. And of Asia.

Of Asia.

Asia as it is used here, refers to the region which had Lycia and Phrygia on the east, the Aegean shores on the west, the Egyptian sea on the south, and Paphlagonia on the north; in which were Ephesus the chief city, and Smyrna and Pergamus, and where there were many Jews, which might be the remains of those that were carried captive, and dispersed by Ptolomy Lagus; those who dwelt in Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamus spoke the Greek language.

Disputing with Stephen.

“Disputing with Stephen,” denotes heated arguments about the doctrine he preached, and the miracles he wrought, and by what authority he did these things; and probably included the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah; with a view to prevent the success of his preaching. This word does not usually denote “angry disputing,” but is commonly used to denote “fair and impartial inquiry”; and it is probable that the discussion began in this way, and when they began losing the “argument,” they resorted, as quarrels are apt to do, to angry insinuations and violence.

10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

And they were not able to resist the wisdom.

“The wisdom they were not able to resist” refers to his knowledge of the Scriptures and his skill in what “the Jews” regarded as true wisdom; acquaintance with their sacred writings, opinions, etc. In Beza's most ancient copy, and in another manuscript it is added, "which was in him"; that divine wisdom, which the Spirit of wisdom gave him. They were no match for him with respect to the knowledge of divine things; they could not answer the wise arguments he made use of, which were taken directly from the Holy Scriptures, in which he was well versed. It is rather remarkable that wisdom would have been ascribed to Stephen, in view of the fact that in the Gospels it is attributed to our Lord [“Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed.Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked’” (Matthew 13:54).], and mentioned as belonging to Solomon [“The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42).]. It implies something higher even than the “consolation” from which Barnabas took his name. It was this great wisdom of Stephen that enabled him to completely vanquish all opponents of the truth he proclaimed.

The force of his reasoning was so strong that they were not able to resist the wisdom rooted in it—they could neither support their own arguments nor answer his. He proved Jesus is the Christ by using irresistible arguments, and he delivered them with so much clearness and evidence that they had nothing of any consequence with which they could rebut what he advanced: though they were not convinced, yet they were stunned and confused.

Observe, that it does not say they were unable to resist him, but rather to resist the wisdom and the Spirit — That is, the Spirit of wisdom which spake through him. They thought they disputed only with Stephen, and could make their case against him; but they were disputing with the Spirit of God in him, before whom anyone would be at a lop-sided disadvantage, and lose the argument. This encounter fulfilled the promise given in Luke 21.15: “For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.”  They were unable to take a stand against him on the basis of Scripture, truth, and logic. Stephen knocked them down, Saul included, as fast as they got up.

And the Spirit by which he spake.

OF the HOLY Spirit” is better than “And the Spirit,” which is how the above examples of Beza, and the Ethiopic version read; the meaning is, they could not resist the Holy Spirit, by which Stephen spake, and for that reason, they were unable to overcome him, or silence him, or refute him; but they did resist him, or oppose him, but all their efforts were in vain, and without success. In fact, they always resisted the Holy Ghost in Christ and in His apostles, just as their fathers before them resisted Him in the prophets, as Stephen declares to them [“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:51.]. This great sermon preached before the Sanhedrin was a fulfillment of what our Lord promised to his disciples [“But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say” (Matthew 10:19).].

The Holy Spirit aided Steven by putting thoughts and words into his mind; but Steven added to it, his energy, ability, and passion. He “showed” a spirit of zeal and sincerity which they could not withstand; which served, more than mere argument could have done, to convince them that he was right. The evidence of sincerity, honesty, and zeal in a public speaker will often go further to convince the great mass of mankind, than the most able argument if delivered in a cold and indifferent manner.

“And they were not able to resist the wisdom “and the spirit with which he spake.” Oh! What a contrast we have here between the wisdom, intellect, learning and resources of the world and the wisdom of God! Here, with the greatest intellectual and scholar (Saul) the world could produce, surrounded by a platoon of preachers, one humble, uncultured layman proves more than a match for them all; as the Holy Ghost says they were “not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.” Can you see what is happening here—the whole crowd with their mighty leader, Saul of Tarsus, are put in total eclipse and literally snowed under by one solitary layman. Therefore, to their lasting shame, they resort to bribery, raising up false witnesses so that they may bring an accusation against him. Stephen preached the perfect sufficiency of Jesus, His vicarious atonement and cleansing blood, and the indwelling of the Holy Ghost; of course, he relegated the types and shadows of the Mosaic dispensation to bygone years, declaring they were no longer significant because they were supplanted by Jesus Christ. This they construed as deprecating the Law of Moses. Then they cry out that he is attacking the church; although he is defending the church of God with all his might, they charge him with disloyalty to the church and kill him for it. He was the first martyr, leading the way and showing the people how to die for the truth. Two hundred million have followed in his bloody track, dying under charges of disloyalty to what carnal preachers call the church, as they did in case of Stephen. If they had the co-operation of the secular arm these defenders of what they call the church would kill us, as they did Stephen and the mighty host of his successors. Beware of the outcry for church loyalty! That is the very shibboleth[1] that piled the rocks on Stephen, fed the martyrs to the lions and burnt them at the stake. It is impossible to be loyal to God and disloyal to His church. When they talk to you about loyalty to God, open your Bible and shout Amen! When they talk to you about loyalty to the church, look out! That is the old hackneyed cry of persecution, from Stephen down to the present day.

11 Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.

Then they suborned men, Which said.

The opponents of Stephen found they were incapable of defending themselves in a fair argument and believed they would very likely lose the debate; therefore, they used lies and secret strategies to shape popular opinion against Stephen, because they could do nothing until they got popular opinion on their side. Popular opinion can be easily shaped, as it was in Jesus’ case.  The same crowds that praised Jesus when He entered Jerusalem (Luke 19:35-40) soon called for His crucifixion (Luke 23:18-23). The success of these tactics against Jesus encouraged them to repeat the same actions against Stephen. They bribed men to make false statements, and secretly instructed them as to what they should say. Previously, persecution against the apostles had been limited because popular opinion was with them, in fact the people seemed to love the apostles [“All the believers were together . . . praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:44, 47)], but now the religious leaders cry out against Stephen. This is why we should never let popular opinion shape the vision or focus of the church, but let it rest on God’s eternal Word.

We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.

According to the Law of Moses, blasphemy consisted of contempt for Moses and his institutions, and was a capital offence [If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known), Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 13:6, 10).]. This charge brought against Stephen was the same charge made against Christ, and for which, as far as the Jews were concerned, He was sentenced to death.

When these religious leaders could not answer Stephen, they resorted to tactics often employed by people bested in an argument: When you cannot out-argue an individual, you usually try to out-shout him. When he still won't be silenced you have to try other tactics, as these did. They set about to charge him officially before the court, and to find false witnesses to testify against him that he had blasphemed Moses and God. It is interesting to me that they put Moses first here, making him more important than God. They stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they seized Stephen and brought him before the council, where the false witnesses, who were bribed by members of the council, claimed that they heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses —their great and divinely-commissioned lawgiver; and against God — The great author of that law which Moses delivered by His command. They were right in supposing that they who blasphemed Moses, if they meant the writings of Moses, which were given by inspiration of God, blasphemed God himself. They that speak reproachfully of the Scriptures, and ridicule them, reflect badly upon God himself, and do a great injustice to Him. But did Stephen blaspheme Moses? By no means; he was far from it. Christ and the preachers of His Gospel never said anything that looked like blaspheming Moses; they always quoted his writings with respect; made reference to them, and said nothing other than what Moses foretold would happen. Stephen, therefore, was very unjustly indicted for blaspheming Moses. This begs the question, “How did Luke know what the opponents of Stephen secretly induced men to say?” Possibly, it was because a man named Saul of Tarsus was among the opponents, because some of them were from Paul’s home region of Cilicia. Saul (who became known as Paul the apostle) may have told Luke about this incident.

 “On such terms,” says Baxter, “we dispute with malignant men: when they cannot resist the truth, they suborn men to swear to false accusations. And it is next to a miracle of Providence, that no greater number of religious persons have been murdered in the world, by the way of perjury and pretense of law, when so many thousands hate them, who make no conscience of false oaths.” 

12 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,

“They stirred up the people by means of the false reports spread by the men whom they suborned (bribed), and by working upon the feelings of the people and the elders and scribes, these leaders of the synagogues so excited them that they obtained permission to arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrim. Up till now, the gospel seemed to enjoy great popular favor. It was necessary, then, to arouse the hostility of the common people. This could be done by perversion of what was preached. The Pharisees, who were apparently neutral since Pentecost until now, were aroused by Stephen's attack on legalism. Judaism was the dominant religion among the Jews. The man who dared to stand without its portals and preach Christ was immediately a target for the darts of Jewish jealousy and hatred. The common people were easily agitated, and soon incensed and provoked, when at any time it was suggested to them that the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses were neglected or treated with contempt [“When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him” (Acts 21:27).]

By “they” is meant the Libertines, etc. (see verse 9), mentioned before. “They stirred up the people”—raised a mob to demonstrate against Stephen; and, to assist, arouse, and lead the mob, they got the elders and scribes, who by doing so, made themselves one with the vilest of whom they collected; and then, altogether, without the benefit of law or concern for justice, rushed on the good man, seized him, and brought him to the council who, though they sat in the seat of judgment, were ready to commit an evil act.

The rapid activity implied by the words “Came upon… caught… brought” suggest taking him by surprise and hurrying him by force into the presence of the Sanhedrim (“council”). Note, seized is probably better than caught; seized with violence is better yet. “And brought him to the council,” meaning the great Sanhedrim, then meeting at Jerusalem, to whom belonged the right to judge blasphemy.

There is no length to which evil men will go to discount the children of God. Even today, “religious” people lend themselves to Satan to speak against the ministers of Christ. Let a man, like Stephen, dare to stand outside the regular church traditions and procedures, and everywhere "the leaders" will malign him, and misrepresent him; reporting things that are entirely contrary to what is truly said, or done. Men who reject the Christian religion, and have power, are apt to oppose those who embrace it, especially if they are zealous and successful in its proclamation. They sometimes contend that the interests of the Church require this; and members of the clergy, clothed with secular authority, and destitute of the spirit of Christ, are often among the most fierce and malignant of persecutors.

Let no man think that he who lives godly in Christ Jesus shall escape some such conflict as that which met Stephen. The man who has no opposition, is the man who is silver-tongued and shallow; the man who goes along with those who are walking contrary to the Word of God.

13 And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:

And set up false witnesses.

Someone may raise the question, “Why are these persons called “false” witnesses, since it is thought by many that they just reported the “words” of Stephen?” It may be said in reply that if they did report only his “words”; if Stephen had actually said what they insisted he did, then he was guilty of blasphemy, and guilty as charged. These false witnesses were paid for their testimony and told what to say by the leaders of the Synagogues, and the result was that they perverted his meaning. They accused him of “blasphemy”; that is, of speaking slanderous, defamatory, and reproachful words against Moses and against God. The charges were baseless, because there was no evidence that Stephen had spoken in such a manner, or had ever considered saying anything derogatory about Moses. What Stephen had said in the mildest manner, while making his argument that Jesus was the Messiah might easily be perverted by the paid liars into what in “their view” amounted to blasphemy. So what was it that they claimed to have heard Stephen say that was so blasphemous? We are told in the next verse: “For we have heard him (Stephen) say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place (the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem), and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” But there is no evidence whatsoever that Stephen had ever used these words on any occasion, and it is altogether improbable that he ever did, for the following reasons:

1.       Jesus never said that He would destroy the Temple, which, incidentally, was what the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial claimed they heard Him say [“and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days’” (Matt. 26.61).]; and now they are using the same tactics against Stephen. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus uniformly taught that it would be done by the “Gentiles.”  The probability therefore is, that the whole testimony was “false,” and was cleverly invented to produce the utmost rage among the people, and yet, it was at the same time plausible enough to be easily believed, since, on this point the Jews were particularly sensitive; and it is clear that they had some expectations that the Messiah would produce changes of some kind; which may have from this prophesy by Daniel—“After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven' he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing [of the temple] he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him" (Dan. 9:26-27). Later on the same charge was brought against Paul, which he promptly denied [“Then Paul made his defense: "I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar" (Acts 25:8).]. Now we know that the same charge was made against Jesus, Stephen, and Paul.

2.      They didn’t have any real evidence to present against Steven, but they were determined not make the same mistake they made at the trial of Jesus, where they had to go out and seek witnesses at the last minute. This time they were ready; they already had their witnesses, and they were instructed to make an oath that they had heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11)—against this holy place and the law (Acts 6:13); because they heard him say what Jesus would do to their Temple and their customs (Acts 6:14). It is probably true that Stephen had said something similar to that and yet those who testified against him are called false witnesses, because, though there was some truth in their testimony, yet they put a wrong and malicious construction upon what he had said, and perverted it.

What was the general charge made against him—that he spoke blasphemous words and, to aggravate the matter, "He ceases not to speak blasphemous words; in other words, he only has one thing on his mind and his tongue; wherever he goes he preaches the same message; he makes it his business to instil his notions into every conversation, regardless of who he is with. He has been warned against it, and yet he continues to do it, but with even more frequency and passion.

Blasphemy is rightly considered a heinous crime (to speak contemptibly and reproachfully of God our Maker), and therefore Stephen's persecutors would be thought to have a deep concern for maintaining the honor of God's name. Just as it was with the confessors and martyrs of the Old Testament, so it was with those of the New—their brethren that hated them, and cast them out, said, Let the Lord be glorified and pretended they did Him a service by doing it. Stephen is said to have spoken blasphemous words against Moses and against God. Thus far they were right, that those who blaspheme Moses (if they meant the writings of Moses, which were given by inspiration of God) blaspheme God himself. Those that speak reproachfully of the scriptures, and ridicule them, reflect badly upon God himself, and fail to show Him His due respect. His great intention is to magnify the law and make it honorable, those therefore that vilify the law, and make it contemptible, blaspheme His name for He has magnified his word above all his name. But did Stephen blaspheme Moses? By no means, he was far from it. Christ, and the preachers of His Gospel, never said anything that looked like blaspheming Moses, they always quoted his writings with respect, and said nothing other than what Moses said should come to fruition: therefore, Stephen is very unjustly accused of blaspheming Moses.

By “set up false witnesses,” we understand that having hired them, they brought them and set them before the Sanhedrim, to bear witness against Stephen: to say what they themselves knew to be false.

Which said, this man.

 “This man” refers to Stephen, who was now before the council, at whom they pointed, and whose name, out of contempt, they would not mention.

Ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place.

“This holy place” is either the city of Jerusalem, which is sometimes called the holy city, which was foretold to Daniel by the angel, or much later to His disciples by Christ, that it would be destroyed; and was afterward destroyed in A.D. 70 by a Roman army. This is something which Stephen might speak of; but, in reality he was reporting what Jesus said about the Temple of His body, that it would be destroyed and three days later restored (meaning His crucifixion and resurrection). But the witnesses and the members of the Sanhedrim took him to mean the Temple which, if destroyed, could not be rebuilt in three days. At that moment they may have been sitting in the Temple or someplace near it.  The accusation flung in the face of Steven was, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words.” 

And the law.

“And the law is used here for the Law of Moses in general or the ceremonial law in particular: the sense is, that Stephen was continually telling the people, that in a little while their temple would be destroyed, and an end be put to temple worship, and to all the rituals and ceremonies of the law of Moses. Speaking against the temple and the law was sufficient to make good a charge of blasphemy. It is very likely that they had heard him speak words to the effect that the Law cannot give life, nor save from death, which is as true as the spirit from which they proceeded; but they gave them a very false portrayal, as we see in the succeeding verse.

14 For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.

For we have heard him say.

They declare that they are going to use his own words against him and prove that he blasphemed God.

That this Jesus of Nazareth.

 This part of the charge against Stephen is definitely true, because he spoke of Jesus everywhere he went. They will go on and add more to the charge, but this is what they really hated—that Steven preached that Jesus was the messiah and that THEY had killed Him.

Shall destroy this place.

 “This place” is the temple, and the charge is the same as the false witnesses at Christ's examination brought against him. They said, “We have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place. This was a lie since neither our Lord nor Stephen ever declared that Christ, would destroy the temple; what Jesus actually said was that they, the religious leaders, would destroy it, that is, the temple of His body; He said nothing at all about the secular temple of the Jews. What’s more, at that same moment, Jesus promised that he would "raise it up" (meaning the temple of his body) in three days. Here are His exact words: “Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19-22; NIV).

It is true, that much later, closer to the end of his life on earth, Jesus indeed prophesied the destruction of the temple, but He did not promise that he himself would destroy it, but asserted that "The king (God) would send his armies (those of the Romans) and destroy those murderers and burn their city" [“The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matthew 22:7).].

Perhaps they had heard Stephen say “that Jesus shall destroy this place,” but that did not prove that he was guilty of blasphemy. Christ was condemned as a blasphemer, for words which were thought to refer to the temple. They seemed to be greatly concerned for the honor of the Temple, but at the same time they were profaning it by their wickedness; making it not only a house of merchandise, but a den of thieves. 

And shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.

By “customs” is meant the rites, ceremonies, institutions, and offices of the Mosaic dispensation. They claimed that Stephen said that Jesus would change these same customs. And yet this is no different than what the Jews themselves say will be done, during the time of the Messiah; for they assert, that "in time to come (i.e. in the days of the Messiah) all sacrifices shall cease, but the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This was an out-and-out lie, because Stephen probably knew nothing about the mystery of the abolition of the Mosaic Law, which even the apostles do not seem to have had any idea of at this time. And it is much less probable that he openly taught what Paul himself, many years after, only insinuated, and even did that with very great caution (see Galatians 2:2). This therefore seems to have been merely an inference drawn by them from what he taught concerning the destruction coming upon the Jews, if they continued in their unbelief: but it was a very precarious inference, since the city and temple had been destroyed before, without any repeal of the law, and therefore they were false witnesses. And they were even more so when they claimed he had spoken blasphemous words against that holy place, and against the law—what blasphemy was it against that holy place, which they, at one time or another, either profaned or idolized, to say that it would not be perpetual, any more than Shiloh was? And that the just and holy God would not continue to give the privileges of his sanctuary to those that abused them? Had not the prophets given the same warning to their fathers when they predicted the destruction of that holy place by the Chaldeans? Indeed, when the temple was first built, didn’t God himself give the same warning?—“This house, which is high, shall be an astonishment” (2 Chronicles 7:21). And with respect to the law, which they charged him with blaspheming; that law of which they boasted, and in which they put their trust; they were at that very moment breaking it, and dishonoring God by attempting to convict this innocent man [“You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” (Romans 2:23,).]. How was Stephen’s saying, (if he really did say it) that Jesus would change the customs which Moses had delivered to them, blaspheming the Law or its glorious Author? Was it not foretold by the prophets, and therefore to be expected, that in the days of the Messiah, the old customs would be changed, and that the shadows should give place when the substance was come? This, however, was no essential change of the law, but the perfecting of it: for Christ came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it; and if he changed some customs that Moses delivered, it was to introduce and establish those that were much better.

Only malignant spite could construe Stephen's preaching the very changes God himself had prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures as blasphemy, either of God or Moses. Therefore it was more than mere twisting what Jesus or Stephen had said, more than mere distortion of their words, which was practiced by the suborned (bribed) witnesses. Their testimony was totally false.

15 And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

 

And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him.

“And all that sat in the council” denotes the whole Sanhedrim.

“Looking stedfastly on him” means that they stared intently at him. They were probably attracted by the unusual appearance of the man, his meekness, his calm and collected fearlessness, his innocence and sincerity, and his confidence in God, but more than anything else, they “Saw his face, as (if) it had been the face of an angel,” and they couldn’t take their eyes off of him.

Saw his face, as it had been the face of an angel.

This expression is used in the Old Testament to denote special wisdom (2 Samuel 14:17; 19:27). In Genesis 33:10, it is used to denote special majesty and glory, as if it were the face of God. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, it is said that the skin of his face shone so that the children of Israel were afraid to come near him (Exodus 34:29-30; 2 Corinthians 3:7, 13; Revelation 1:16; Matthew 17:2). The expression is used to denote the impression produced on the countenance by communion with God; the calm serenity and composure which follow a confident committing of all into his hands.

Sayings like this are frequently used by the Jewish writers, who represent God as distinguishing eminent men by causing a glory to shine from their faces. Rabbi Gedalia said that, “when Moses and Aaron came before Pharaoh, they appeared like those angels which minister before the face of the Lord; for their stature appeared greater, and the splendor of their faces was like the sun, and their eyes like the wheels of the sun; their beard like clusters of grapes, and their words like thunder and lightning; and that, through fear of them, those who were present fell to the earth.” Something similar is said about Moses (see Debarim Rabba, fol. 75), that “when Sammael (Satan) came to Moses, the splendor of his face was like the sun, and himself resembled an angel of God.”

It appears that the light and power of God which dwelt in his soul shone through his face, and God gave them this proof of the falsity of the testimony which was now before them; for, as the face of Stephen now shone as the face of Moses did when he came down from the mount, it was the fullest proof that he had not spoken blasphemous words either against Moses or God, for it he had this splendor of heaven would not have rested upon him.

The history of the apostolic Church is a series of wonders. Every thing that could prevent such a Church from being established, or could overthrow it when established, is brought to bear against it. The instruments employed in its erection and defense had received all their might and power immediately from God. They work, and God works with them; the Church is founded and built up; and its adversaries, with every advantage in their favor, cannot overthrow it. Is it possible, though, to look at this without seeing the mighty hand of God at work in it? He permits demons and wicked men to work, to avail themselves of all their advantages, and to even seem to prosper— yet He counterworks all their plots and designs, turns their weapons against themselves, and promotes His cause by the very means that were used to destroy it. How true is the saying, “There is neither might nor counsel against the Lord!”

Saul of Tarsus was in that council, and it is reasonable to assume that he reported this phenomenon to Luke. As to what it was, many prefer to view it as merely the radiance of holy and righteous zeal in the person of the martyred Stephen; but it is not safe to limit it to that which is purely natural. As Lange said: "It obviously describes an objective, and, indeed, an extraordinary phenomenon." Whatever it was, Paul never forgot it; nor could he ever erase from his memory the sorrow of that tragic day when the first martyr of the Christian religion sealed his faith with his blood.

In this chapter we have another example of the manner in which the church of the Lord Jesus was established. From the very beginning it thrived amidst awful persecution, encountering opposition designed to try the nature and power of religion. If Christianity was an imposture, it had enemies who were perceptive and malicious enough to detect the imposition. The learned, the cunning, and the mighty rose up in opposition, and by using all the sophisticated skills, all the force of authority, and all the fearfulness of power, attempted to destroy it in its infancy. Yet it lived; it gained strength from every new form of opposition; it displayed its genuineness more and more by showing that it was superior to the skills and malice of earth and of hell.

 

 



[1] Shibboleth—a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning.

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