A few years after Pentecost, the apostles are continuing to grow the church in Jerusalem, but they have not yet left Jerusalem to proclaim the gospel anywhere else. This would soon change.
In chapter 6, verses 1-7, Luke tells us that the Hellenists started complaining about their widows being neglected in the daily charitable distributions. Hellenists are Jews who speak Greek as a first language, and who probably understand very little Hebrew or Aramaic. These are Jews who lived outside of Palestine but then moved to Jerusalem at some point in their adult lives. Jews who grew up in Palestine (Judea, Samaria, Galilee) spoke primarily Aramaic and Hebrew, with Greek as a second language.
In that day, devout, Greek-speaking, Jewish men would often move with their wives to Jerusalem, or the surrounding area, so that they could live their final years in the Holy Land, near the temple. The husbands would frequently die first and leave behind widows who had no nearby family to care for them.
Jews took very seriously the biblical commands to care for widows. There were weekly and daily distributions to widows. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), “The daily distribution (tamûy) typically consisted of bread, beans, and fruit. The weekly distribution (quppā) consisted of food and clothing.” The early church was likely implementing the same sort of system.
We are not told why the Hellenist widows are being ignored, but it probably was due to church growth. The apostles are dealing with thousands of people, and they are not as familiar with the Greek-speaking widows as they are with the Hebrew widows, so they accidentally omit them from the distributions.
In any case, the apostles need to focus on prayer, preaching, and teaching, and the added burden of administering charity to the Hellenist widows would be too much for them to handle. They wisely ask the Hellenists to nominate, from within their group, seven men who could take over administration of the daily distribution to the Hellenist widows. They had to be men of “good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The Hellenists choose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. Both Stephen and Philip will be featured in subsequent chapters of Acts.
Luke notes that the number of converts continued to increase in Jerusalem and that Levitical priests were included in that number. Darrell Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), notes that the
conversion of a ‘large group of priests’ has important apologetics value. The priests came to Jesus as previous opponents, so they must have assessed the claims of the apostles and found them convincing. Second, they would have checked the Scriptures carefully before deciding that the claims the apostles made about Jesus and God’s salvation program were true. Third, they would have been aware of the harsh view Jewish officials took on Jesus, and so their daring to come to faith indicates their conviction was strong enough that they were willing to suffer the scorn their conversion would invite. Finally, in converting from the camp of opposition, the priests were able to supply the faith community with insider information on the official priestly assessment of Jesus and his followers. Such information supports the conclusion that the NT accurately represents what the Jewish leadership thought of Jesus and the church.
Starting in verse 8, Luke writes that Stephen is performing miracles and preaching at a particular Hellenist synagogue whose members included former Roman slaves and Jews from other parts of the Roman Empire. Some members of the synagogue argue with Stephen and attempt to discredit his teaching, but Stephen’s words are irrefutable because he is filled with the Spirit. Since they cannot silence Stephen with argumentation, they accuse him of blasphemy. Stephen is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin to defend himself.
Witnesses at the council hearing stand up and say about Stephen, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” The holy place is the temple, so Stephen is accused of speaking against the temple and the Law given by Moses.
Stephen’s response to the charges against him stretches from chapter 7, verse 2 to verse 53. Due to time constraints, we must summarize the speech before picking up the narrative in verse 51. At first glance, Stephen seems to be merely reciting biblical history. However, his recitation is meant to highlight at least two major themes. John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary, explains:
Two recurring themes stand out. The first is that God can never be tied down to one land or place and correspondingly that his people are closest to him when they are a ‘pilgrim people,’ a people on the move. The second major theme is that of Israel’s pattern of constantly resisting and rejecting its God-appointed leaders. The second theme has accompanying it a subtle Christological emphasis, which is ultimately the main goal of the speech. Israel’s past points to the present. The pattern of rejection in the past foreshadows the ultimate rejection of God’s appointed Messiah in the present. Other themes are related to this major one, even the explicit temple critique in vv. 47–50. The fulfillment of Israel’s true worship is in the Messiah, and in rejecting him they were rejecting what ultimately the temple was all about.
Related to these two themes is Stephen’s thoughts about the temple. Stephen is accused of denigrating the temple, but that is a misunderstanding. Polhill writes:
Stephen did not reject the temple as such but the abuse of the temple, which made it into something other than a place for offering worship to God. His view is thus closely linked to that of Jesus, who also attacked the abuses of the temple cult and stressed its true purpose of being a ‘house of prayer’ (Luke 19:46).
The particular abuse that Stephen addressed was the use of the temple to restrict, confine, and ultimately to try to manipulate God. This seems to have been the significance in his contrast between the tabernacle in vv. 44–46 and the temple in vv. 47–48. The tabernacle was designed (v. 44) and approved by God. It was a ‘dwelling place’ for God, but not a ‘house’ of God. It is the concept of ‘house’ to which Stephen objected. As a ‘house’ the temple was conceived as a man-made edifice in which God was confined: ‘This is his house—here and nowhere else.’
In verses 51-53, Stephen directly challenges his audience: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
The Jews accusing Stephen are acting exactly as their ancestors did. Their ancestors persecuted and killed God’s prophets, and now they have killed the very Messiah whom the prophets predicted. It is likely that Stephen has more to say, but he never gets the chance. Sensing the rage of his audience, Stephen pauses his speech and receives a vision from God. In the vision, he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God the Father, and he tells the assembly what he has seen.
Darrell Bock writes, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament:
When Stephen proclaims that he sees the Son of Man, Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Father, it is too much (vv. 55–56). In their view, Stephen is attacking the very uniqueness of God by suggesting that there is one standing next to him in heaven. They see this as a clear act of blasphemy. This difference over Jesus and all that grows out of it is the key to the conflict and parting of the ways between Jews and the new community.
The crowd from the synagogue grab him and drag him outside the city walls to be stoned to death. As the synagogue witnesses remove their cloaks so that they can stone Stephen, Luke tells us that a young man named Saul guards the cloaks. Here we have our first introduction to the man who would ultimately write most of the letters contained in the New Testament, the apostle Paul. But before Saul would become Paul, he would persecute the Jerusalem church. The martyrdom of Stephen would precipitate a full-blown conflict between the church and the Jews of Jerusalem. The conflict would finally force some church members to leave Jerusalem and spread the gospel to Judea and Samaria.
Bock summarizes the story of Stephen’s death:
In sum, this unit looks at someone who paid the ultimate price for faith: martyrdom. Stephen dies not only seeing Jesus standing in heaven to receive him but also praying for those who killed him. Stephen dies as Jesus did and follows his example. Death is frightening, but martyrdom for Jesus, though not sought, is an honorable death. Other believers can draw strength from the way in which Stephen bears his cross.
The scene also portrays what is dividing the new faith from Judaism: the honor Jesus receives. What is glorious to Stephen is blasphemy to his audience. The two views cannot be more divergent. The vision of God’s glory reinforces the conclusion that Stephen’s view of things is the truth. A second appearance by Jesus to Saul will convince the model persecutor of the church that Stephen is right about Jesus.