Friday, August 16, 2013

Early Christian Opposition 1

My study in Acts continues...
On the Day of Pentecost, prayer led to the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brought purity and power. The purity was the cleansing that came from sins being forgiven. The power was both the power to heal and perform miracles, yet also the power to witness to the resurrection with boldness.

Two other consequences quickly followed the expression of such power. First, many individuals came to believe in Jesus. But it will be no surprise that opposition also followed quickly...

But it was not until Stephen that a believer died for his or her faith. Stephen was one of the seven men that took leadership in the ministry to Greek-speaking (Hellenistic) Jews. In Acts, we never see him distributing food to widows, although he certainly may have done so. What we find him doing is presenting the gospel with power in the Greek-speaking synagogue of Jerusalem.

Why did Stephen's preaching end in his death, while the apostles' preaching did not?  Perhaps opposition to the good news about Jesus was stronger among the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem. Maybe the way Stephen preached it was more offensive than that of Peter and the apostles. After all, even after Stephen was stoned to death, the apostles managed to stay in Jerusalem and continue their ministry (cf. 8:1). It is Philip and apparently the Greek-speaking evangelists who have to flee the city for their lives.

On the one hand, it is possible that Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem were more traditional in some ways than Aramaic speakers. After all, these are individuals who had moved to Jerusalem from far-away places. They may have valued Jerusalem and its traditions more than those who were born there and might easily have taken it for granted. [1] The apostle Paul may very well be a case in point.

But Stephen’s sermon also seems a little more edgy than Peter’s in some ways. For example, Peter and John worshiped at the temple. We have no record of them saying anything against it. Even almost thirty years later, the Jerusalem church still seemed to be fully engaged with the temple (Acts 21:23-26).

By contrast, the climax of Stephen’s sermon is the fact that God does not live in buildings made by hands (7:48). Something about the temple triggers Stephen's indictment of Jerusalem's leaders as "stiff-necked people" (7:51).  We remember Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple.  Stephen may be thinking of that event too, since it is here that he indicts the leaders for putting Jesus to death. Perhaps he is also hinting that the Jerusalem leaders were using the temple as an excuse to act unrighteously. [2]

Many have pointed out the similarities between Stephen's sermon and the New Testament book of Hebrews. Abraham living as a stranger in the land (Acts 7:6) reminds us of Hebrews 11:9. In fact, Stephen's whole sermon might remind us a little of Hebrews 11, the faith chapter that shows us the heroes of Israel as models of faith.

Acts 7 and Hebrews share in common the idea that the Law was mediated through angels (Acts 7:53; Heb. 2:2). They share an interest in the wilderness tabernacle. They share a sense that Moses followed a pattern when making it (Acts 7:44; Heb. 8:5). They share a sense that the earthly sanctuary, made by human hands, is inferior to heaven where God really dwells (Acts 7:48; Heb. 9:24).

These are fairly unique features among the sermons of Acts. One scholar went so far as to say that the author of Hebrews might have been a Hellenist like Stephen. [3] But it is more likely the other way around.  Acts is more likely portraying Stephen like the author of Hebrews, perhaps even with the sermon we call Hebrews in mind. Nevertheless, there must have been some similarity to spark the connection.

Those listening to Stephen go crazy.  They mob him, take him outside the city and stone him to death. Acts surely wants us to hear an echo of Jesus in Stephen's prayer not to hold it against them (cf. Luke 23:34). The apostle Paul is there too, although he was going by the name of Saul at the time. He apparently does not throw stones himself but he facilitates the event.

The good news, even though it is good, will always face opposition.  It will face opposition from those who are jealous of its success.  It will face opposition from those whose wrongdoing it indicts.

Of course "description is not prescription" in the portrayal of Acts.  Stephen is rather confrontative in his approach, and it got him killed. Just because Stephen was confrontative does not necessarily mean that we have to be. There is more than one way to present the good news, and Stephen's is not the only way. There is a time to confront wrongdoers, but it is also possible that some personalities enjoy doing it a little too much.

[1] I grew up three miles from the Atlantic Ocean, but mostly went to the beach when we had guests come to visit from up north. The guests could never understand how someone who lived so close to the ocean did not visit it all the time. I suspect that many of those who grow up near famous tourist sites could attest to the same dynamic.

[2] As in the days of Jeremiah, were they thinking God would protect Jerusalem, even if they lived unjustly (cf. Jer. 7:1-11)?

[3] William Manson, The Epistle to the Hebrews: An Historical and Theological Reconsideration (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951).

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

"Why did Stephen's preaching end in his death, while the apostle's preaching did not?" I thought that, although only one apostle's death is mentioned in the Bible, traditions has it that at least seven of the others were martyred (assumably for their preaching) at some time after Stephen was martyred. Their time had simply not yet come; God wasn't finished with them yet.
Their hearts must have been so aggravated by the intentional push-back of others, and have been so
anguished by knowing in every cell of their beings that Jesus was the God who creates, saves, heals, redeems and makes all things new, and be prevented from or thwarted in their efforts of sharing that God-given message with others by rabid religious leaders and false teachers.
Maybe one day He will truly make all things new, and our hearts will be more like theirs.