The church was born in the face of oppression and because of that oppression, some would argue thrived. Recently, and I’ve referenced this before, the people at Pew research told us that more and more people are calling not calling themselves Christian (an eight percent drop in the last seven years). Some have posited that is because being a Christian, unlike it was twenty or thirty years ago, is unfashionable. My brother Aaron Foltz wasn’t too worried about Christianity’s social disadvantage. He told me and our friend Jerome that recently, via Twitter, the church’s growth has exploded during periods of disadvantage. The early church was his best example, but also what’s happened in so-called anti-Christian nations like China.
— Aaron Foltz (@foltz_face) May 29, 2015
God, through his followers, confronts evildoers directly. He speaks the truth. The early church realizes this and engages. In the book of Acts, Stephen is the first. His confrontation against the powers and rulers deliberately parallels Jesus’ own. Perhaps Luke parallels Stephen’s story to Jesus. Let’s read from Acts 6: 8-15 where Stephen gets arrested:
If you are familiar with Jesus in the Gospels, the accusations against Stephen start with leadership and end up spreading to the people. He’s saying something that’s so threatening tot heir social order. We aren’t even told explicitly what he said! But the Hellenists, the Roman sympathetic Jewish people, round up the people and arrest Stephen.
More than likely, Stephen is disturbing the delicate Jewish social order. The one that the leaders have established in order to live peaceably with Romans. At this juncture, Judaism is a legal religion in Rome and the Jewish leadership are happy to practice the shadow of their ancient faith that’s left. Stephen is disrupting that and the fear is that their established order will be undone if Stephen, who may be perceived as a Jew by Roman authority, continues to stir the pot.
Despite Stephen’s assertive confrontation, Luke makes it clear that his trial was unjust, and that even under the law, it was “false witnesses” (another parallel to Jesus) testified against him. Ultimately, we are shown that the whole Jewish people, “on the street,” opposed him.
Even as Christians today, as we confront our oppressors, make no mistake that false witnesses and false accusations will be made against us and not even our radical message. You will be invalidated for all sorts of reasons, and it takes some real guts to keep following Jesus. This whole series of events leads Stephen to go into a long-winded speech, the longest speech in Acts, which contains many speeches. We wont’ go into all of them in detail, but let’s fast forward to the end of one of them.
Stephen starts the most climactic and incisive part of his speech with the term “stiff-necked.” This term is one that is very familiar to his Jewish audience, as it is used in Exodus and Deuteronomy a few times, too, to describe similar people.
They are stubborn. They are unfaithful to the law when it matters—“uncircumcised in heart and ears.” They are spiritually dead and unwilling to listen to the truth, as one commentator puts it. Stephen then tells them they are opposing the Holy Spirit. Stephen, who was just described as having a face like the angels, is filled with the Spirit and equates his cause audaciously with the Spirit’s. If you oppose Stephen, you oppose the Spirit too. Just like your ancestors have opposed prophets, you oppose me.
It’s funny, he reverses the chargers. His accusers charge him with violating the law and he turns it right back at them and says you are the one that violate God’s law! You can see that he’s not afraid of a fight. He goes in, like a shepherd protecting his sheep and the delicate movement he’s beginning. He uses the ancient Scripture that everyone is familiar with to do it. He alludes to it repeatedly. And Luke makes Stephen’s story parallel Christ’s story. It is masterful storytelling. Stephen confronts his oppressors, and Luke uses the story to rejuvenate the Jesus followers that are reading it. So then what happens? I bet you can guess. The parallel to Christ continues into Stephen’s own martyrdom.
Right after this speech, the Jews respond. The verb here literally means “their hearts were torn into two.” They are enraged, and Stephen is calm. He looks to heaven and declares that he sees the Son of Man, the savior, the apocalyptic savior that will save Stephen and all of his followers soon. This term is only used twice more in the rest of the New Testament (in Revelation), and is frequently used in the Gospel. It’s a special word and it means something powerful to the Jews that are hearing it. Moreover, Stephen says that son of Man is standing by God—which the Jews really believe no one has the right to do. It is tremendous. They are enraged and grinding their teeth and Stephen continues with his tenacious indictment.
The crowd ignores what he is saying and then stones him. They kill him and Saul observes it (chapter 8, verse 1 says that Saul approved the whole thing). Saul, of course, will eventually become Paul and this story sets up his radical conversion that is central to Acts and the whole New Testament. Luke introduces him here.
It is noteworthy how sinister his oppressors are. They lynch him. There is no trial, no verdict, no due process. They execute him Jewish style, with stones.
Stephen prays to God while he is being stoned, “Receive my Spirit,” like Peter instructs in Acts 2, and like Jesus did himself on the cross. Stephen is crying out to both the Son of Man, Jesus, and the Father. The Spirit is in him. He continues to quote Jesus, when he asks God to forgive his enemies, his killers.
What is amazing about this death is that it is an honor for Stephen. What is honorable to Stephen, to be received by Jesus, is blasphemy to his Jewish oppressors.
So now that we’ve gone through this story, what do we do now? Go and die for Jesus? Incite the rage of our enemies to the point of death? This is complex, isn’t it? It is rare these days to utter something that’s so offensive that it will lead even your worst enemy to kill you (although, these days we’ve seen people say things like “Don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” etc. come to their untimely deaths at the hands of the authorities).
This whole passage might lead you to start a revolution against the church. In fact, Stephen was addressing his religious leaders. So you can create a mutiny against Circle of Hope and against Jesus. I think Jesus is leading the greatest mutiny ever, so I think leading one against him and his followers is counterproductive (unless your intent is to be counterproductive).
But what did Stephen do? He defended the church against its oppressors. The church, and Circle of Hope in particular advocates for the least among us very much, but it is noteworthy that some advocacy for the church itself seems to be what Stephen is calling us to do.
In view of the recent Pew study it seems to me like the church is under something of an attack. This is hard to stomach because people who hyperbolically describe the church’s persecution surround us. I am afraid that that line has been so overused we may not take it seriously anymore. But I think we need to discern how the church is being attacked, by the people around it, in it, and outside of it. Our call is then an invitation to repentance and inclusion. I think, earnestly, what frustrated Stephen and Jesus about the Jewish authorities were how recalcitrant they were, how stiff-necked, how stubborn they were. May then, we confront the oppressors with grace and love, but with truth and convincing. Let’s massage their necks and soften their hearts and invite them in. The worst they can do is kill us.