Opposition June 5, 2022
Spirit of God, at Pentecost you created new understanding among the followers of Jesus. Move among us this day and fill us with new understanding of your living Word. Energize us to bear witness to the world you love, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
Our New Testament reading this morning, which was taken from the book of Acts, opened with these words, “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” So, we know that this Stephen, through the Grace of God, had been blessed with the ability to perform miracles amongst the people of his day. But the problem is, first of all we don’t know who this Stephen was, and secondly, why God had given him such a blessing.
So, let’s go back a little bit in Acts where we’re first introduced to Stephen. Here’s where we first meet him, “Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.”
What had taken place is that as the early church grew the twelve apostles were at the point where they were unable to do everything themselves and so needed some help. So, they asked the members of the church to select seven men to help out and Stephen was one of those chosen to help. Of the seven who were chosen, Stephen stood out from the rest. We’re told by great physician, Luke, that Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit.
And because of his strong faith, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, Stephen was not only able to help support the poor and the widows of the church, but he was also able to preach the Word of God and perform miracles amongst the people he taught. Through his words and deeds, he was able to bring many more people into the church of Christ.
And it was because of these converts which he was winning that Stephen ran into opposition. Luke says, “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” The leaders of the synagogue saw that Stephen, though his words and actions, was bringing people to accept Jesus as the Messiah and they were angry about that. At that time, they thought Jesus was just some carpenter from Nazareth and so they opposed the message Stephen was bringing and they began to argue with him.
And wasn’t that exactly what Jesus had warned his followers about when he was still with them? These are the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, “Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:17-20)
As warned by Jesus, the disciples would be forced to defend the faith in front of the ruling authorities. But, as promised by him, they wouldn’t have to do it alone. Stephen was filled with wisdom and with the Spirit of God in defending the faith. The members of the synagogue could argue against him, but they couldn’t argue against the Holy Spirit who was in him and speaking through him. The Holy Spirit was supplying the answers, the thoughts, and the words to say. So, Stephen debated with them, and they debated back. He stood his ground, and they were unable to withstand his wisdom. Stephen was full of wisdom which the Holy Spirit gave him and so they lost the argument.
Now it’s thought that quite likely one of the members of the synagogue who would have been arguing with Stephen that day would have been Saul of Tarsus. Saul was an educated man, he had been taught by one of the most well-known religious authorities of the day, Gamaliel. We heard of Gamaliel earlier in the book of Acts when the leaders of the synagogue were trying to decide how to stop two of the apostles, Peter and John, from preaching about Jesus. This was what took place, “A Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, ‘Fellow-Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. …In the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5:34-35,38-39) So it was Gamaliel who convinced the leaders to leave Peter and John alone.
And this Saul, who had been educated by Gamaliel, was that same Saul who had the encounter with Jesus on that road to Damascus and became one of the strongest defenders of the Christian faith. This Saul, who is better known to us by his other name Paul, would become the author of 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. And he was amongst those whom Stephen debated and of whom it was said, “But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” Because of the work of the Holy Spirit, Stephen, an ordinary man, was able to win the argument against Saul, a well-educated and experienced debater. This was one of the many things that sealed the importance of Stephen in the Bible and the future of Christianity, followers of Jesus.
But since those religious leaders couldn’t win the argument against Stephen with reason, they resorted to other means, we’re told that, “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” When words prove ineffective and arguments fail, desperate men turn to more desperate measures.
So, they set about to charge him officially before the council of the Sanhedrin and to find false witnesses to testify against him, saying that he had blasphemed Moses and 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 synagogue, claimed that they heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.
Luke tells us “So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Of course, this wasn’t true, the leaders had put the men up to this, but many people believed these lies. They convinced the crowds that these men were dangerous and that they were heretics, going against the name of God.
And just like the false accusations these men made against Stephen, so they did against Jesus. They claimed that Jesus had said that he would destroy the temple, but in actual fact what Jesus had said was this, “As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Jesus did speak about the destruction of the temple, but he didn’t say that he was going to do it. Jesus knew that one day soon the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman authorities, it wasn’t he who would do it. But the temple leaders wanted to portray Jesus as a terrorist and then paint Stephen with the same brush.
So, in these verses we have another example of the difficult circumstances in which the church of the Lord Jesus was established. However, from the very beginning it flourished amidst persecution, encountering opposition designed to try to prevent Church from being established. Both the religious authorities and the government leaders rose up in opposition, doing all they could to bring down the Church and to destroy it in its infancy. Yet it lived; it gained strength from every new form of opposition.
And isn’t it the same today, in life outside the church. Just like Stephen we encounter people who for some reason are resentful or mock what we’re doing. And sometimes they’ll go to any length to try and stop us, even through lies and gossip. But we can always remember the example of Stephen who was full of faith, full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom. It’s the support of the Holy Spirit which will give us that strength of character to see us through such periods of our lives. Not everyone but in many places even here in North America, it has become especially tough in the 21st century but Jesus is there with us, the Holy Spirit is there with us, just as God planned. It's not always easy and we struggle at times, but this is how we grow in our faith, this is how God knows we truly love him and are faithful just as his early followers. God is with us through it all and will provide the help when we need it, we just need to be ready.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, as we continue to learn and grow our faith, your word tells us that as you are, so are we in the world. As we leave your church on this Pentecost Sunday, your Holy Spirit lives in us, and through his guidance, we are your representatives to the world around us. We pray for the strength of Stephen and ask you to pour out the power of your Holy Spirit on us and enable us to do your important work here on earth. In Jesus name we pray. Amen