Acts 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Stephen's Witness and Arrest
How attractive is the father or mother of a newborn, glowing with joy over God's good gift. Just as attractive is Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit. We are drawn to him.
What does a person "full of the Spirit" look like? By God's grace, can I be such a person?
Stephen engages in an effective witness by deed and word, not unlike the apostles (5:12, 42). The Spirit-fullness he knows includes grace and power, so that he is able to do great wonders and miraculous signs. Grace further defined by power is not simply a miracle-working ability (compare 3:12). It is a more comprehensive "gracing" that includes effective preaching (6:9-10; compare 14:26; 15:40; 20:32). As part of a larger "apostolic" circle that included Philip and Barnabas, Stephen does miracles as a token of salvation's advance first to Hellenistic Jews and then to other peoples (8:6; 14:3; 15:12).
Should we expect more "Stephens" today? Though normally signs and wonders are the work of apostles and prophets at particular junctures of God's salvation history, Stephen's activity is witness to the fact that even "this restriction is not absolute" (Stott 1990:126). Let us pray to be full of the Spirit and let God's "gracing" do what it will.
Stephen's witness in the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues draws opposition. In theological debate, however, Stephen bests all comers; no one has an answer for him (compare Lk 12:12; 21:15; Jn 16:8-11). Stephen has conquered their minds. But God has not chosen through this witness to also conquer his opponents' wills and lead them to repentance and conversion.
Stephen's opponents resort to subterfuge. In private they prompt some to make the claim that they have heard Stephen speaking blasphemous things against Moses and God (also see vv. 13-14). In New Testament times blasphemy encompassed more than simply uttering the divine name (as in m. Sanhedrin 7:5); it was any slanderous or scurrilous word spoken against humankind or God or anything associated with his majesty and power (Lk 22:65; 23:39; compare 5:21; Num 15:30). The Hellenistic Jewish instigators and their agents arouse the elders and the teachers of the law and, for the first time, the people against the Christian witness (contrast Acts 2:47; 4:21; 5:13, 26). The opposition gathers such momentum that all rush on Stephen in a violent arrest (4:1; 19:29; compare Lk 8:29; Acts 27:15).
A Sanhedrin trial for blasphemy required witnesses, and the Hellenistic Jews make sure they are present here--though, as Luke is careful to point out, these are false witnesses. They are not false simply because they are opposing God's spokesperson. Rather, their testimony is a "subtle and deadly misrepresentation of what was intended" (Longenecker 1981:336). Comparing their words with Jesus' teaching reveals an identifiable mixture of truth and falsehood (v. 14; for v. 13 compare 21:28). Jesus did predict the temple's destruction, but he did not say he was its destroyer (Lk 21:6). When challenged for a sign to validate his right to drive the moneychangers from the temple area, Jesus responded, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days" (Jn 2:19; compare Mk 14:58). Did Jesus of Nazareth predict that he would change the customs Moses handed down? No, Jesus was not an opponent of the law (Mt 5:17-18; Lk 16:16-17). Yes, Jesus did alter the customs of Moses, the oral tradition, when he found that allegiance to them meant nullifying the written law of God (Mt 15:1-9; Lk 6:1-5, 6-11).
Opposition tactics like these are still found today. When serious theological or religious debate is not successful, a personal campaign of lies may follow. And if the witnesses' or the message's integrity cannot be undercut this way, legal action may be pursued. Sadly, this path is followed by opponents of the truth within as well as outside the church.
The defendant stands before the court in session, tier upon tier of dignified jurists of Israel's highest court. Stephen transfixes those who would be his judge. It's as though they cannot take their eyes off him (compare 1:10; 3:4, 12; 7:55). And no wonder: his face was like the face of an angel! Though this certainly reflects divine approval of his witness (Stott 1990:129) and parallels the effects of Moses' standing in God's presence (Ex 34:29, 35; Marshall 1980:131), Jesus' transfiguration is a better immediate model for what is happening here (Lk 9:29). So full of the Spirit, so full of wisdom, faith, grace, and power is Stephen that the glory of God shines from his face. To a greater or lesser extent, that's the way it is with all those who are full of the Spirit of God (2 Cor 3:18).