Isn’t it curious how churches distinguish themselves by their names? The name usually reveals something about the people who originally chose to gather, and why they chose to establish a new local body. You’ll find words like living, first, new, hope, faith, pleasant, evangelical, family, covenant, community, victory, union, true, etc., etc., not to mention the many denominations just in the protestant faith.
In Acts 6-7, Stephen is confronted by a unique, local gathering of Jewish believers known as the Synagogue of the Freedmen. History indicates this group were formerly slaves of Rome under Pompey, but had been set free, and had established a synagogue at their own expense in Jerusalem where they could gather. Their past experiences connected them in a way that others would not necessarily understand, so they established their own house of worship. They were not all native Jews; some were Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and others from Cilicia and Asia, but they were practicing the Jewish faith in alignment with the Old Testament Law of Moses.
Stephen had arrived on the scene, having been chosen by the apostles to serve in the growing Christian church, essentially one of the first deacons. His role, along with six others, was to assist in the daily distribution of food as the church took care of one another’s needs so that no one was overlooked. Stephen is described as a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power. He was not one to stay in the background; he was performing great wonders and signs testifying to the name of Jesus. He caught the attention of this Synagogue of the Freedman because he was also a skilled debater in spiritual truth, and he was challenging their beliefs by preaching Jesus.
It is evident that Stephen was attempting to explain to these Jewish worshippers that Christ had fulfilled all of the sacrificial requirements of the Law but was met with no small resistance. This surprises me. After all, they were a living example of what it meant to once dwell as a slave but be set free. One would think they would delight in hearing that just as they had been released from their bondage to their Roman slave owners, they could also be set free from bondage to their own sin. The news that Christ had fulfilled all the Law on their behalf would be the ultimate spiritual freedom – no longer accountable for daily sacrifices that could not make them holy. Instead, they had simply moved from one type of slavery into another.
They could not cope with Stephen’s presentation of the gospel. They did not know how to dispute it but were evidently convicted by it as he spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit. Their arguments turned to anger, and led them, just as in Jesus’ case, to bring false witnesses against Stephen and accuse him of blasphemy and speaking against the Law.
We know how this turned out for Stephen. He presents an amazing defense, taking his accusers all the way back to Abraham and retelling the history of the Jewish people, up to the moment Jesus was betrayed and crucified by His own. With boldness, undeterred by the danger he knew he was in, he confronts them with their same spirit of rejection: You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did (7:51). In the end, their hard hearts lead to the stoning of Stephen, who sees Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, waiting to welcome him home.
We could read this story and think, “If Stephen had just stuck with serving the food, kept his head down, and focused on his good deeds, he would have survived.” Couldn’t he have had more influence if he’d lived longer? Well, perhaps, but consider who was standing nearby. A young man named Saul, in hearty agreement with Stephen’s death, heard him call out to the Lord Jesus in his last moments. He saw his face, filled with glory as he gazed into heaven, and witnessed his compassion for the very people who were killing him as he asked for God not to hold their sin against them.
There’s no doubt that Stephen’s death was a catalyst in Saul’s life. As we’ll read in the next chapters, the stoning catapulted Saul into a murderous rampage of his own, a righteous anger he thought pleased God – a path that would lead down the road toward Damascus where he would meet Jesus for Himself. Saul’s conversion and transformation into Paul the Apostle would change the world.
There are two takeaways from this story. First, may we never be so bound up in our own doctrines that we resist the truth of scripture. The members of the Synagogue of the Freedman could have changed their name to the Synagogue of the Enslaved when they rejected the freedom and grace that Jesus offered. They missed the truth that could have set them free by their tight hold on tradition and an unwillingness to consider their own sinful hearts.
Second, Stephen did what God called him to do. His life was short; he only had a few years to live for Jesus, but his name lives on in history as the first Christian martyr in scripture. He was willing to serve in the humblest of tasks, but also unafraid to speak the gospel boldly whenever he had an audience. We never know how our lives will affect others; let us ask God to also make us people who are full of grace, wisdom, and the Holy Spirit, willing to be used in whatever way, for however long He determines is best.