Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops saying things 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 handed on to us.’ And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
“You shall not bear false witness” – one of the foundation commandments of the Jewish religion, but Stephen’s accusers seem to have had no scruples about inciting others to give false witness claiming that Stephen attacked their faith and practices.
This tragic event arose out of an argument in the synagogue of Greek speakers. It is clear from the preceding item in Acts 6 that there was tension in the Christian community between Greek and Hebrew speakers about the distribution of supplies and as a result Stephen was one of the first seven “deacons.” Perhaps members of the Greek speaking synagogue knew something about this and were troubled, feeling threatened by the loss of some of their members to the new Christian heresy, as they saw it. They could not refute what Stephen had to say and so they jettisoned one of the building blocks of their religion to use lies to attack him. The false accusations were presented before the Council whose members looked intently at Stephen whose “face was like the face of an angel” – a messenger from God.
Occasionally (all too rarely?) we can find ourselves in the presence of someone whose holiness and Christian faith shines out – and how do we feel in such situations? Uncomfortable and unworthy perhaps – even tempted to find reasons to disparage such a person rather than be inspired to be more Christ-like ourselves. At any rate Stephen’s witness was such that rather than accept what he had to say a lynch mob was formed.
None of us likes what we feel precious being attacked and it can be hard to admit that an alternative view may in fact be correct; “argument weak, shout louder” has been a response resorted to in so many situations over many generations! But telling lies is far worse, and is being “economical with the truth” so much better? In this incident lying led to murder.
Pray God that when we feel threatened we can resist the temptation to twist facts into lies, bear false witness and seek to exact a form of vengeance against those who unsettle us.
“We are not like that” nor, in their own eyes, were those who attacked Stephen.
Gracious God, we give thanks for the witness of Stephen and of so many faithful Christians in every generation. We pray for others and for ourselves that when what we hold dear is threatened we may have grace and wisdom to accept new insights that build up our faith but also have the strength needed to resist all that would undermine true witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen
The Revd Julian Macro is a retired minister and member of Verwood United Reformed Church