3.6 Acts -- the First Martyr
Stephen was one of the Hellenistic Jews who was appointed to deal with the food distribution. But he did more than that. Like Peter, he took the Gospel into the public square: signs, wonders and preaching in synagogues (Acts 6:8-9). Some opponents from the Synagogue of the Freemen accused him of blaspheming Moses and the Law, and hauled him before the Sanhedrin. Dr Lloyd Ogilvie believes Saul of Tarsus was a member of that synagogue and one of the accusers (Acts, The Communicator's Commentary, Vol 5, 1983, pp.140-141). Peter had spoken to the Sanhedrin recently and had barely escaped with his life (Acts 5:33). So Stephen's audience was not in a receptive frame of mind. Acts records Stephen's sermon (Acts 7). Here, the Hellenist assumed the role of a traditionalist Hebrew, and gave a summation of Old Testament history -- Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the Exodus, the golden calf, the tabernacle. This was probably all to establish his credentials as a true Godfearing Jew. Having got off to a fairly good start, he then launched into attack mode:
"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him -- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it" (Acts 7:51-53).
This had the unsurprising result of enraging his hearers, but Stephen wasn't done yet:
Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56).
At this, the pot boiled over. The crowd became a mob, hauled Stephen out of the chambers, and stoned him to death outside the city walls. No messing with the Romans, petitioning Pilate, deferring to Roman procedures. This was payback time for all the recent disturbances by the new Nazarene sect. And they did more than kill Stephen:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1).
The Jewish leadership had long been frustrated with how to deal with the new "heresy." It was even growing within their own ranks (Acts 6:7). A reaction was bound to occur. The leaders of the new faith were not listening to reason or threats, so it was time to unleash the goon squads:
Saul began to destroy the church (Acts 8:3).
Unwittingly, this persecution had the effect of furthering God's plan, as Jesus as declared a few months previously:
"you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:7-8).
If the witnesses wouldn't go of their own free will, then fear of the authorities would compel them to go. Philip, another of the seven deacons, went to Samaria and preached boldly as Stephen had done in Jerusalem. But the Samaritans' reaction was different from that of the Sanhedrin:
"There was great joy in that city" (Acts 8:8).
Then Peter and John arrived, and prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. This is interesting -- no racial/religious objections were raised at this time. Samaritans were perhaps not seen as true foreigners, since they had lived among the Jews for hundreds of years. Though they were rejected by orthodox Judaism, the disciples had no reluctance in teaching about Jesus and ministering in the power of the Spirit:
Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages (Acts 8:25).
This was at least a first step, and a significant one, in reversing generations of prejudice, and of opening up the new church to those who traditionally were outsiders. Significantly, however, the Scriptures do not tell us that Samaritans were welcomed into the homes of Jewish believers, creating a mixed congregation. This would have created a massive disruption in the larger community.
By chapter 9, Luke could write:
Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace (Acts 9:31).