It is no surprise to read about this attribute of Stephen’s. After all he has been qualified and confirmed as a leader Acts 6:1-6 (see v. 5 in particular). Luke takes note that Stephen has locked verbal horns with members of “the Synagogue of Freedmen”. While this sounds like some sort of cult, it isn’t. Freedmen were generally former slaves, prisoners of war and their descendants. The list of place names here represents a common trait of all human beings- we tend to congregate with folks who are like us! Having settled in Jerusalem these men have now formed a synagogue where they can study the Scriptures and socialize with like-minded Jews of similar circumstance. Of particular note is the mention of Asia. Tarsus was its capitol and this tiny piece of information foreshadows a figure who is about to emerge at the end of chapter 7 (v. 58). It is highly likely that one of the men who rose up to debate and discredit Stephen was Saul.
It would be very natural for Stephen to go to this synagogue since it is more than likely that he and the other men chosen to administer food and clothing to the Hellenistic widows were all Hellenistic Jews themselves. He engages discussion with his fellow Jews over two points which ruffles the feathers of a very important contingent in the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees who held both in high esteem. First is the over-arching importance of the Temple as the central place to find and worship Yahweh. The second is that while the Jews love to use the Law as a symbol of their unique relationship with Yahweh, they seldom obey it and often persecute the people who challenge them to do so. In his lengthy historical defense, Stephen uses three important and cherished figures to illustrate his points: Abraham heard and obeyed God when the nation of Israel was a mere glimmer in God’s eye (7:2-8); Joseph persevered and obeyed God even when he was carried off to a land where God was one god among many, yet his faith never wavered (7:9-16); and Moses was obedient to God’s call even when the people he was leading were consistently disobedient to the God he served (7:17-50). The leaders could find no rebuttal to these excellent points. You can argue opinion; you can’t argue history.
As it generally goes with people who do not want to listen to reason, lose their power base, or change their ways, the only way the leaders can respond to Stephen’s apologetic is to fabricate charges and orchestrate Stephen’s demise. Some men are persuaded to give a false testimony concerning Stephen, he is brought before the Sanhedrin and must answer with a defense. The whole scenario recalls Jesus’ trial and for Stephen there is nothing greater than following in the footsteps of his Master. Many scholars note Stephen’s “defense” is hardly a defense but more of a masterful exposition on the history of Israel, its people and their God. But it is actually a brilliant combination of a testimony, a response to the charges against him through a dissertation on what they mean, and an indictment in return upon the present leadership who are about to repeat the same mistakes of the leaders in the past (7:51-53). Stephen dies in the same fashion as the Lord he serves, handing over his spirit to the Lord and praying for his persecutors (7:54-8:1) and Luke moves the story forward by taking note of a man among the crowd who is in full agreement with the events of the day but will soon find himself championing what he once sought to destroy- Saul.
It would be easy to relegate this account to a file entitled “The History of the Early Church” but is that Luke’s purpose in writing it? I think not! The principal here is twofold: we will be called to make an account for what we believe, and we’d better be ready to do it (1 Pet. 3:13-16)! I often wonder what kind of impact Stephen’s defense had on Saul. Was he impressed by his knowledge, passion, and skill? Did some of his points cause Saul to think again and then later truly change his mind? It must have done something for several years later Saul (now known as Paul) instructs another young man to be diligent and prepared just as Stephen was (2 Tim. 2:15). Therefore, the call to be ready is just as important for us.
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
https://www.annhlefevre.com; Olivetreeann@mail.com; https://www.linkedin.com/in/annhlefevre; https://www.facebook.com/ann.h.lefevre