You and I do not see things the way God sees them. Very often what appears to us to be nothing but defeat is something that is going to bring victory in God’s cause in the end. That has been the experience many times throughout religious history. What appeared to bring defeat and disaster to Christianity often ended up being a great triumph of the Christian faith and recorded in sacred Scripture.
As believers were added to the church, the sick were brought into the street on stretchers in the hope they would be healed. The priests and rulers were filled with indignation and threw the apostles into prison, forbidding them to speak anymore in the name of Jesus. They were scheduled to come before the Sanhedrin for trial the next morning, but during the night, an angel from heaven came and released them and told them, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life” (Acts 5:20). They were brought before the council again, and told, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name” (verse 28)? But Peter and the other apostles said, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (verse 29). They became so angry when Peter told them that they were the ones responsible for crucifying Jesus, that they decided to kill them on the spot.
But Gamaliel, who was one of the learned rabbis among them, cautioned them and said, “Be careful: for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (verses 38, 39). Unable to disagree with Gamaliel’s advice, it says in verses 40–42, “They agreed with him and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”
Ever since the beginning, the devil has constantly sought to stir up trouble among Christians so that Christ’s prayer for His church to be in unity and harmony would not be fulfilled. This was another attempt by the devil to destroy the church by arousing within it controversy and infighting. Resulting from these events was that from the ranks of those opposing the Christian faith, their most active and successful champion in persecuting Christians, came a man who would become the greatest champion of the Christian faith and write more than half of the books in the New Testament.
The early believers had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and believed that He had been raised from the dead. They were in Jerusalem at the time; so they could check the evidence, check the tomb where He had laid, and talk with those who were eyewitnesses. Paul says there were over 500 that had seen Christ after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). These people were all in Jerusalem. So if you wanted to confirm the evidence that Jesus had been raised from the dead, you could easily find someone who had seen Him. The number of Christians was continually increasing, not only among those who were Hebrews, but also among people who were living there from other nations that spoke not Hebrew but the lingua franca of those days, the Greek language.
These early believers had been cut off from their family and friends. Jesus had said in Matthew 10:34–36, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household,” because some would accept the gospel and some would not.
Because of zealous bigotry many of the converts to Christianity had been thrown out of business and exiled from their homes. Their relatives refused to allow them to stay at home because they were Christians. For espousing the cause of Christ they were destitute. They had no business, they had no source of livelihood, they had no place to stay. So it became necessary to provide this large number that were congregated in Jerusalem with homes and sustenance. Those who had money and those who had possessions cheerfully sacrificed them to meet the existing emergency. They sold their things and brought them to the apostles so that the rest of the Christians could be sustained.
Among the believers there were those who were Jews by birth, and also those who did not speak the Hebrew tongue. They were residents of other countries who used the Greek language. Between these two classes in the past there had existed distrust and even antagonism, but now, even though their hearts were softened and united by Christian love, yet the old jealousies were easily rekindled. Acts 6:1 says, “In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists” that is, the Greeks, “… because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (literal translation).
Inequality would have been contrary to the spirit of the gospel. There was an alleged neglect of these Greek widows in the distribution of funds and food set aside for the poor. So, prompt measures were taken to remove all cause of dissatisfaction and the apostles summoned all the believers together for a meeting. They said that the time had come when they needed to be relieved from the task of apportioning food and sustenance to the poor and other similar burdens so that they could spend their full time preaching Christ. Verse 2 says, “The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, ‘It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ ”
This saying pleased everybody and seven people were appointed as deacons. The word deacon comes from a Greek word diaconas which simply means a middle-class servant. So they appointed seven people to be the servants of the church, to take care of, to visit those that were poor, those that were sick, those that had financial difficulties, and any other need. After they had set these seven men before the apostles, they prayed and laid hands on them. It says in verse 7, “The word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.” Not only was there a growing number of people who believed the doctrines taught by the apostles and had checked the evidence and found out Jesus had risen from the dead, they also said that He is in heaven, and we have the evidence. We’ve talked to people who have seen Him and talked with Him after the resurrection. The number of Christians was multiplying very rapidly, not only among the Greeks and the Hebrew people, but among the priests, even the leaders of the Jewish religion. It says in verse 7, last part, “A great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”
This turn of events caused more trouble. The leading priests and rulers witnessed the wonderful ministration of the power that attended the deacons and especially the leader, the one in first place, whose name was Stephen. Stephen made it plain that he was a student of the prophecies. He had also done great wonders and miracles among the people (verse 8). He was a Jew by birth but he could speak the Greek language and was familiar with the customs and manners of the Greeks. So he found opportunity to proclaim the gospel in the synagogue of the Greek Jews. There were learned rabbis and doctors of the law who engaged in public discussion with Stephen and tried to show that he was wrong, but it says in verses 10, 11, “They were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ ” Some of the leaders had decided to figure out a way to kill him.
First of all, they hired false witnesses to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against the temple and against God.” They were filled with bitter hatred against this man because they couldn’t show in a public debate that he was wrong. Remember, the last resort of every false religion is force. If you cannot show that your opponent is wrong intellectually, the only way to win is to kill him.
Instead of yielding to the weight of evidence presented, they decided that they would silence his voice by putting him to death. They did not doubt that they could pursue such a course, since they had previously bribed the Roman authorities to ignore their nefarious deeds. They determined that they were going to risk the consequences at all events. So Stephen was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin council. Jews were brought in from surrounding countries to refute his arguments. There was a young man, also present, by the name of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a theologian, trained at the feet of Gamaliel and one of the leading rabbis in Jerusalem. Saul took a leading part against Stephen. He brought the weight of eloquence, the logic, and the reasoning of the rabbis, to bear on the case, to convince the people that Stephen was preaching delusive and dangerous doctrines.
When Saul of Tarsus met Stephen at his trial before the Sanhedrin, he met somebody that he found out was as highly educated as himself, someone who had a full understanding of the purpose of God in the spreading of the gospel to other nations. Neither Saul of Tarsus, nor the council, nor anybody, was able to prevail anything against the clear, calm wisdom of Stephen. But even though they couldn’t win the argument by debate, they were vehement in their opposition and determined that they were going to make an example of him. They decided to satisfy their revengeful hatred by putting Stephen to death, hoping that would prevent other people, through fear, from accepting the doctrines he was teaching.
This fate has befallen thousands, if not millions of individuals since. False witnesses were hired and testified that they had heard Steven speak blasphemous words against the temple, saying we have heard him say that the customs are going to be changed.
Verse 15 says, “All who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” He was there to answer for the crime of blasphemy, but a holy radiance shown on his face, and those that exalted Moses could have seen in the face of the prisoner the same holy light that radiated from the face of Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai. Many who saw this lighted countenance of Stephen trembled and veiled their faces, but their stubborn unbelief and prejudice never faltered.
Stephen was questioned as to the truth of the charges brought against him and he began to take up his defense in a clear thrilling voice that rang through the council hall (see Acts 7). He proceeded to rehearse the history of the chosen people of God in words that held that assembly spellbound. He showed a thorough knowledge of the Jewish economy, and explained the spiritual interpretation of it that was now made manifest through Christ. He made plain that his own loyalty to God and to the Jewish faith was still intact.
But he showed that the law in which they trusted for salvation had not been able to preserve them from idolatry. He connected Jesus Christ with all of Jewish history. He referred to the building of the temple by Solomon in Acts 7:47–50: “But Solomon built Him a house. However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the Lord, or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?’ ”
When Stephen reached that point, there was a tumult among the people, and the prisoner read his fate in the countenances of those before him. He perceived the resistance that met his words that were spoken under the dictation of the Holy Spirit. He knew that He was giving his last testimony. When he connected Jesus Christ with the prophecies and spoke of the temple as he did, they pretended to be horror-stricken. This was an evidence to Stephen, a signal to him, that his voice would soon be silenced forever. Even though he was just in the middle of his remarks, of his defense, he abruptly concluded it by suddenly breaking away from the chain of history and turning upon his infuriated judges. Acts 7:51, 52 says, “You stiff-necked and 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 foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murders, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
When he spoke those words, the priests and the rulers were beside themselves with rage. They became so infuriated with anger that they became more like wild beasts of prey than human beings. They rushed upon Stephen, gnashing their teeth, but he was not intimidated. He had expected this. His face was calm. He was ready for whatever they might do. The infuriated priests and the excited mob took him out of the temple, and as he was brought out from the place where they were going to kill him, Stephen looked up into the heavens and said, “ ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (verses 56–58).
The rulers could not stand to hear what he had to say so they “stopped their ears.” They stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.”
“Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (verses 57, 59, 60).
The people who had accused him were required, according to their custom, to cast the first stones. These persons who cast the first stones laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul of Tarsus who had also taken an active part in the disputation and consented to the death of Stephen.
The martyrdom of Stephen made a deep impression upon all who witnessed it. It was a terrible trial to the church, but it resulted in the conversion of Saul. The faith that Stephen manifested, the constancy that he showed, the glorification of the martyr at the very time when the religious leaders were angry at him and were killing him, could not be effaced from the memory of Saul of Tarsus. Whole nights he spent struggling with this. How is it that at the very time when this man is being stoned to death, dishonored by men, a blasphemer teaching dangerous doctrines, he gives evidence that he has the signet of God upon his face. His words reach to the very soul of those who heard them, and remained in the memory of all the beholders, testifying that what he was saying was the truth.
Similar incidences have happened thousands or maybe even millions of times where force was used to get rid of someone whose arguments could not be refuted. The weight of evidence was too great; the only way to win the argument was to kill them. There had been no legal sentence passed on Stephen, but the Roman authorities could be bribed and they were bribed, by large sums of money to make no investigation of the case.
God’s way of dealing with people is to give evidence and then ask you to make your decision on the evidence. What is the weight of evidence? Are you making decisions on the weight of evidence? Or are you making decisions on the weight of money?
We live in a world where bribery has been used in order to get one’s way in courts of justice. This is a terrible thing when it happens even in Christian nations, because, if we do not make our decisions based on the weight of evidence, someday we will have to give an account of what we have done and why we have done it. Romans 14:12 says, “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”
Friends, that means you, that means me. We are each going to have to give an account of ourselves to God. Saul of Tarsus started having a hard time. He could not forget the scene of Stephen’s trial and subsequent death and he seemed to be angry at his own secret convictions that Stephen was honored of God at the very time when he was dishonored of men. In order to put this out of his mind he began more than ever before to persecute the church of God. He hunted them down, seized them in their houses and delivered them up to the authorities to be imprisoned and even killed. He became the terror of the Christians in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities made no special effort to stay the cruel work. They secretly aided the Jews, trying to pacify them. That has been the case in our world, over and over again for thousands of years. But soon unbeknown by Saul, everything was going to change in his life.
If you come to Jesus, everything will change in your life.
(Unless appearing in quoted references or otherwise identified, Bible texts are from the New King James Version.)
Pastor John J. Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church of Free Seventh-day Adventists in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.