Death of a fearless orator
October 7 — Acts 6:8-7:2; October 14 — Acts 7:51-8:1By Reta Halteman Finger
These two lessons comprise all we know about a hero of faith who flashed across the stage of the early Jesus Movement, embraced his 15 minutes of fame and died amid a hail of rocks. Listen up, you namesakes of this fearless orator — all you Stevens, Steves and Stephanies among us — you have a hard act to follow!
We first hear of Stephen as a Hellenistic Jew chosen to make sure his fellow-immigrant widows receive the same honor at the daily table service as the Hebrew women (6:1-6). But between meals, he debates with other compatriots in the “Freedmen’s” synagogue (6:9).
Intensely nationalistic, these freed slaves must have endured hardships to move back to their roots in the Holy City near the Holy Temple, where, as they see it, the God of Israel dwells in the Holy of Holies and the law of Moses is observed. However, Stephen challenges their most basic convictions, so they haul him before the ruling council of Jerusalem elders (6:12).
This political backdrop is necessary to fully appreciate the force of Stephen’s speech. I used to skip over it, thinking it just repeated Hebrew history I already knew. That is, until I read F. Scott Spencer’s literary analysis in his 2004 commentary. Stephen tells history with spin and bravado. No wonder he didn’t survive.
As charges of blasphemy and terrorism are announced, Stephen’s face appears “like the face of an angel” (6:15). Unlike our visions of round-faced cherubs, biblical angels are formidable creatures who elicit fear. Stephen himself refers to angels four times (30, 35, 38, 53).
To combat the charge of speaking “against this holy place and the law” (6:13), Stephen retells the story of Israel through the lenses of two interconnected arguments: 1) Israel was always a wandering people with no one sacred site; and 2) Stephen’s audience opposes God, just as did their ancestors who continually opposed their God-appointed leaders like Joseph and Moses.
In your Bibles, underline every phrase that highlights these points; I can mention only a few. “Our ancestor Abraham” (7:2) is always on the move, and “God did not give him … even a foot’s length” of land (5). “His descendants would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others” (6). After Jacob and Joseph die in Egypt, “their bodies were brought back to Shechem” in Samaria, not to Jerusalem.
Then follows a lengthy section on Moses’ rejection by his own people (7:21-29). In the Sinai desert, “our ancestors … pushed him aside” (39) to worship other gods. The true holy place was the moving “tent … in the wilderness, as God directed” (44). Though Solomon built a house for God (47), “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (47). Stephen indicts his listeners as children of these perverse ancestors. “You are the ones that received the [Mosaic] law … and yet you have not kept it” (53).
If you had risked everything to move to this sacred site, or were responsible for protecting it, could you have heard this speech without fierce anger? By charging his opponents with rebellion against God, Stephen pays with his life. He witnesses to and parallels Jesus’ martyrdom for similar actions. Today, Stephens — from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Christian Peacemakers Teams — speak truth to power in similar ways.
Stephen’s sermon also underlines the Spirit’s movement away from the temple and into households and the wider world (8:1). Christian Zionists who support Israelis’ claim to Palestinian land as scriptural are not listening to Stephen, who challenges the entire premise of “holy land.” Troubling as well, the platforms of both major U.S. political parties support moving Israel’s capital to Jerusalem.
A question to debate: Was Stephen a faithful hero or a misguided radical?
Reta Halteman Finger, of Harrisonburg, Va., is retired from teaching biblical studies at Messiah College.
Comment on the article Death of a fearless orator
Please keep comments civil. MWR editors reserve the right to remove any comment. When posting a comment, you agree to the MWR Comments Policy. Name and comment will be posted; commenters are strongly encouraged to give their full name. Email address is for follow-up only and will not be made public.