By Wayne Greeson
In the midst of the rapid growth of the church at Jerusalem came turmoil. The church was threatened by internal strife, The strife was not doctrinal, but was born of a genuine problem, the neglect of the Hellenist widows in the daily distribution of food. This real problem stirred petty passions and politics among the Hellenist Christians and they began to murmur against the Hebrew Christians. This murmuring could have led to two warring factions within the church and split it into open division along party lines.
Into this potential breach step the apostles guided by the wisdom of God. The apostles told the church to select seven men to be appointed to take care of the daily distribution of food. The men to be chosen were not to be just brothers, they were to have a good reputation, be full of the Holy Spirit and full of wisdom (Acts 6:3). Following these guidelines, the “whole multitude” of the church chose seven men whom the apostles appointed. Leading the list of the seven men chosen by the entire Jerusalem church was Stephen. In addition to the qualities set forth by the apostles, Luke particularly notes Stephen as a “man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).
The problem was resolved and “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
What a great character, what respect Stephen must have had among the Christians in Jerusalem. His reputation was such that the entire church, Hebrew and Hellenist alike, placed their confidence in him. He was full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom and faith. Stephen was not a man of half measures; he fully followed after the instructions of the Holy Spirit, his wisdom was complete and his faith was mature. Stephen was a man in whom the entire church could place their confidence. They were assured Stephen would handle himself and the problem fairly and wisely to the satisfaction of all.
Stephen was such a striking, powerful and commanding figure. Considering his great reputation, wisdom and faith, why would anyone desire to stone Stephen to death?
He Went Among the People
Luke records, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). One of the reasons Stephen was stoned was because he went “among the people.” With his reputation and respected wisdom, Stephen could have stayed at home and waited for the people to come to him. Why should he go and seek to teach others and stir up trouble? Stephen did not stay home and play the “sainted sage,” dispensing bits of wisdom and marching orders far from the battlefield. Stephen went “among the people” boldly speaking God’s message of a crucified Jesus Christ to a hostile Jewish audience and performing great miracles confirming his message. Stephen was stoned because he did not run and hide, he boldly stood up and spoke out.
There is no danger of being stoned by staying away from people, but then neither are their souls to teach and win for Christ. The stones and slings and arrows are painful and certainly not desirable, but they are not found in the safety of the backline foxhole, they are found where the battle for the souls of men and women is furious and pitched, “among the people.”
They Could Not Resist His Wisdom and Spirit
Stephen’s great work “among the people” surely contributed to the increase of the Word of God and the large numbers of Jews, including priests, who obeyed the faith of Jesus Christ (Acts 6:7). Stephen’s success did not go unnoticed. As more Jews heard Stephen and others proclaim the gospel and as they became disciples of Jesus Christ, some Jews were determined to stop these conversions by stopping the preacher.
The preacher the Jews chose to “go after” was Stephen. Likely they chose Stephen because of his prominence and his success in teaching the truth. These Jews began disputing with Stephen in an attempt to destroy his influence and stop his teaching. Apparently these men attempted to directly confront Stephen and refute his teaching by the Scriptures. They quickly discovered they had “bitten off more than they could chew.” Stephen was stoned because those who tried to stand against him and dispute with him “were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:10).
It is interesting to note that those who tried to dispute with Stephen included Jews from Cyrenia, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia (Acts 6:9). The Hellenist Jews may have been the greatest affected by Stephen’s preaching of the gospel. Those who rejected Stephen’s preaching were likely well trained in the Scriptures and Greek rhetoric and eager to do battle. One such young man was Saul. Saul was from Tarsus of Cilicia and trained in Jerusalem at the feet of the highly respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Saul could have been one of those defeated before Stephen.
Those who opposed Stephen could not stand up before him. Stephen had the truth. But even more importantly he used the truth. But he also had more. Stephen had wisdom. He had wisdom in the truth, wisdom in teaching the truth and wisdom in using the truth. Stephen had spirit. Stephen’s preaching was not a scholarly tome delivered from an ivy tower. Stephen spoke with wisdom and spirit. He spoke the truth with power and he reached and converted people.
If indeed we have the truth, then the next question is, do we use the truth? Maybe a better question would be, if you do not use the truth, do you really have the truth? Truth is not something to be hidden away on a shelf in a back room. If one does not use the truth, he loses the truth. Paul instructed, “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
Some have great wisdom in teaching the truth. They have a great knowledge and understanding of the Word of God, yet they lack the spirit to face the false teachers and boldly defend the truth. All the scholarship in the world is useless unless it is put to use actively defending the truth. Others are spirited in teaching God’s Word, but they lack the wisdom to properly use and defend the truth. We need to manifest both wisdom and spirit in our use of God’s Word, as Stephen.
Those who oppose will not be able to stand long against the truth when delivered with wisdom and spirit. Instead of honestly and openly facing the one who proclaims the truth, they will use whatever means they can find to destroy those who vigorously and actively speak the truth with wisdom and spirit. There is a proverb, “Stones are not thrown except at the fruit-laden tree.” If no stones are being thrown your way, could the reason be there is no fruit?
They Suborned False Witnesses and False Accusations
Truth that is wisely and boldly taught cannot be met head on by false teachers. Those who opposed Stephen could not defeat him in the Scriptures in open debate. They determined to avoid open and honest discussion with Stephen and attack him with lies. So they “suborned” false witnesses and made up false accusations to destroy Stephen. The word “suborn” means to put under, to bring under control, possibly by influence and/or money. In other words, these false witnesses were “bought” liars.
How could a man with the reputation and ability of Stephen be stopped by his enemies? Only with the most malicious of lies. They falsely accused Stephen of blasphemy. Blasphemy against Moses, against God, against the temple and against the Law (Acts 6:11-14). Of course nothing could be farther from the truth, but these men were not interested in the truth. It is likely that Stephen had indeed taught that “Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place (the temple), and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us” (Acts 6:14). But this simple truth in the mouths of wicked accusers was twisted into a vicious charge of blasphemy. Those who stoned Stephen were unwilling and unable to answer the truth Stephen taught with Scripture, but they were willing to attack Stephen with lies and vicious accusations.
Those false teachers who attempt to withstand the truth have not changed. A.C. Grider observed that any false teacher who attempted to defend false doctrine against the truth of God’s Word would ultimately resort to dishonesty. Since these dishonest men cannot resist the wisdom and spirit of those who proclaim the truth, they avoid at all costs a direct open and honest confrontation on the Scriptures. Their method is ad hominem, they attack the man with false accusations, name calling and appeals to party politics and prejudices rather than answering his arguments.
Do not be caught in these carnal tactics and avoid those who use them. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds” (2 Cor. 10:4). Our speech should not be “rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing” (I Pet. 3:9), so that “having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ” (1 Pet. 3:16). Those who opposed Stephen used as weapons lies, liars and ultimately stones to destroy Stephen. Stephen’s only weapons were the vigorous proclamation of the truth and ultimately prayer. We should use no less than these same “mighty weapons” in our warfare (Eph. 6:17-18). The lies and stones may have appeared to win the battle, but in reality they have lost the war.
They Stirred Up the People
The enemies of Stephen were not content to lie about him, they sought to spread the lie. They “stirred up the people” (Acts 6:12) likely by means of the false charges and false witnesses. The rumors against Stephen were quickly disseminated throughout Jerusalem, “Stephen is a blasphemer.” It has been said that a lie travels round the world while Truth is putting on her boots, and so the lies against Stephen raged like a fire (Jas. 3:5-18).
Those “stirred up” likely had never heard of Stephen nor heard him speak. Given the opportunity many of these people may have carefully and thoughtfully considered the Scriptures and the truth, but this is exactly what Stephen’s enemies did not want. They sought to enflame the passions and prejudices of the people by calling Stephen a blasphemer. The people were enraged into a righteous fervor. Those who came together were likely similar to the mob that gathered in Ephesus, “the assembly was confused: and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together” (Acts 19:32). If those who gathered together knew anything, this one thing they were sure of – “Stephen was a blasphemer.”
Enemies of the truth will always appeal to the people by false accusations against those who preach the truth. Slander and rumor will agitate the crowd. Many may not have the opportunity to find out the truth and those who oppose will do all they car to keep the truth hidden. Attack the man, avoid the argument; obfuscate rather than elucidate; agitate rather than mitigate. One hundred years ago the people were stirred by the false charges that some preachers were “antimissionary” because they opposed missionary societies. Thirty years ago the people were stirred by the false charges that some were “anti-orphans” and “orphan haters.” History continues to repeat this baleful pattern even to the present. Those who are children of God will avoid this behavior and those who incite it (Prov. 16:27-28; 17:4; 6:16-19; Eph. 4:29-31; Tit. 3:2).
They Were Cut to the Heart
Stephen was seized by the stirred multitude and drug before the Sanhedrin council and charged with blasphem “Are these things so?” the high priest asked Stephen (Acts 7:1). Stephen made his defense by means of an eloquent sermon. Truly the wisdom and spirit of Stephen shone brightly as he deftly retold the highlights of the history of Israel highlighting the foreshadowing of Christ and his rejection by his own brethren.
Stephen brought his sermon to a pointed conclusion, “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53).
Luke records that those who heard Stephen were “cut to the heart and gnashed at him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54). Stephen’s words of truth hit hard and cut deep. How easily Stephen could have avoided “offending” his audience. Stephen could have walked away alive by compromising the truth and himself. Stephen taught the truth, the truth his audience needed most and he applied it plainly and boldly. Stephen was stoned because its message cut his audience directly to the heart.
Are we reaching our audience? Some preach the Word, but shun “to declare . . . the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Others are willing to preach and teach only what “offends” no one, steps on no one’s toes and deals with no one’s false doctrine. The result is “no one” is being “cut to the heart” from many pulpits. The sword of the Spirit is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). But in the hands of one who is unwilling to unsheathe the sword of the Spirit in the face of false teachers and false doctrine, few are ever “cut to the heart” (Acts 7:54) and fewer are “pricked in their hearts” (Acts 2:37). Whenever a preacher is so bold as to teach the truth and apply it to his audience as Stephen, watch out, the stones will begin to fly.
They Stopped Their Ears
It is hard to imagine those who would be so affected by the words spoken by Stephen that they would literally clap their hands over their ears (Acts 7:57). What good did this do? They had already heard and knew the truth Steptien spoke, Their actions appear to be an act of desperation. They were so blinded, so prejudiced in their hatred that they could no longer even bear to listen to Stephen. Each word he spoke was like adding another lead weight, pressing down upon their guilty consciences. Enraged they determined not only to stop their ears, but to stop Stephen’s mouth. They ran at Stephen, threw him out of the city and stoned him to death (Acts 7:57-58).
One of the saddest parts of this account is that those who stoned Stephen were his own Jewish brethren. But as Stephen had pointed out the prophets were persecuted and slain, not by the Gentiles, but by their own Jewish brethren (Acts 7:52). This tragic pattern did not begin or end with Stephen. Too often the worse trouble and persecution arises from within rather than without. Brethren this ought not to be. “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15).
Christians are to be “swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (Jas. 1:19). Watch for those who are stopping their ears from hearing, swift to speak accusations and swift to wrath. When men will no longer discuss the Scriptures, they will refuse even to listen. Instead they will be too busy stopping their ears and rushing to look for stones to throw.
Some Stood and Watched
Some stood and watched Stephen stoned to death. One who did so is named, a young man known as Saul (Acts 7:58). Many of those who stood by and watched may not have been involved in the false witnesses, false accusations and stirring up the people against Stephen. But those who stood and watched Stephen stoned were just as guilty as those who picked up and threw the stones.
When the truth is preached there will be those resist it and there will those who will merely sit silently on the sidelines.
When false witnesses and false accusations are raised against one who preaches the truth, there will be those who stand and watch. When the people are stirred, ears are stopped and the stones begin to fly there will be the impassive “spectators” watching safely from the distance. Jehovah condemned the Edomites for being spectators of the destruction of their brothers, “In the day that you stood on the other side – in the day that strangers carried captive his forces, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem – even you were as one of them ” (Obad. 1:11, NKJV).
Stephen was stoned because he preached the truth and stood his ground. We would do well to follow his example and take our stand regardless of the persecutions, the false accusations and stones that will come. Jesus promised, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 15, pp. 498-501
August 15, 1991