29 April 2015

Acts 7:55-60

"While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.' Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' When he had said this, he died." (vv. 59-60)

Psalm: Psalm 146


There were many disputes in the early Church and the book of Acts does not shy away from recording them. One dispute of considerable importance was between the 'Hellenists' and the 'Hebrews'. The Hellenists were probably so called because they could speak only Greek, as opposed to the Hebrews who would have mainly spoken Aramaic but also usually some Greek as well. The Hellenists were most likely members of the Jewish population dispersed around the Mediterranean region, where Greek was the most common language.

As well as speaking different languages, one can assume that the two groups also differed culturally and in their thought processes. The "seven men of good standing" (Acts 6:3), including Stephen, were appointed to respond to one of the disputes between Hellenists and Hebrews (see Acts 6:1). Stephen was a Christian Hellenist and his controversial preaching caused unrest in Jerusalem and led to his martyrdom. He accused his hearers of murdering Jesus in the same way that their ancestors had killed the prophets and he questioned the authority of the Temple. To be "uncircumcised in heart and ears" is to be resistant to the word of God.

Hebrew Christians tended to be still quite attached to the Temple and they would have been a little discomforted by Stephen's preaching, but the Jews in Jerusalem were outraged. It appears that a spontaneous act of mob violence erupted and he was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. This first recorded act of Christian martyrdom draws parallels with Jesus' own death, as Stephen offers up his spirit and prays for his executioners, that their sin may not be held against them.

To add to the powerful drama of the scene, the story relates that the witnesses to this brutal act "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul", thus introducing the reader to this most significant of characters. (Saul was later to become the apostle and prolific evangelist Paul.) And maybe there is the hint that the manner of Stephen's dying did not go unnoticed by this zealous persecutor of the Church.

To Ponder

  • Disputes amongst Christians existed from the very earliest days of the Church. Does this reassure you or does it dismay you that religion appears so often to be divisive? What current divisions amongst Christians are you aware of and how might they be resolved?
  • One example of division in Britain and in the Church is between urban and rural communities. How do you think the Church could help in bridging this specific divide?
  • Dying well is an enormously powerful witness to the gospel of resurrection but requires considerable grace and resourcefulness. Have you witnessed anyone 'dying well' and what factors do you think help in generating this grace and resourcefulness?

Bible notes author

The Revd Graham Jones

Graham Jones is a Methodist presbyter serving as a member of the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network in the Yorkshire Plus region of the Methodist Church, with particular responsibility for ministry development. Graham is committed to developing ministry in its broadest sense, enabling both lay and ordained to live out their vocations, and to share in God's mission in the most fulfilling and effective ways.