April 10, 2022
“But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened...'”
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“But Stephen, filled by the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw God’s glory with Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and he said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they screamed at the top of their voices, stopped their ears, and rushed together against him. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him. And the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They were stoning Stephen as he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin!’ And saying this, he fell asleep. Saul agreed with putting him to death.” Acts 7:55-60, 8:1
In that early era, following Jesus’ resurrection, followers of Jesus were considered by the more significant Jewish communities to be exclusively Jewish. Much the way they view the Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Judaism today. The Romans officially considered “Messianics” a sect of Judaism, and the first dispute within the early Church concerned Jewish believers, influenced by Gentile culture.
In chapter 6, a dispute broke out between Hebrew and Greek-speaking Jews. A prejudice that existed in mainstream Jewish culture had made its way into the young Christian community. Greek-speaking widows were not getting a fair share of the community charity. In Israel today, there are disputes between various ethnic Jewish communities.
Stephen was chosen (along with six others) to ensure things ran smoothly. Important to note is how all seven of those chosen had Greek names. The Apostles wanted to send a message that there should be no prejudice among Messiah’s followers, so they chose men of Greek Jewish background to distribute the charity.
By most scholars’ accounts, Stephen was a Samaritan. It is evidenced by the Biblical references and interpretations he cites in his defense. Samaritans were half-breeds: ½ Jewish, ½ Gentile. At home, with neither the Romans nor religious Jews of Jesus’ day, Samaritans were too Jewish to be Gentile and too Gentile for the Jewish community.
Not being a “Hebrew speaking” Jew and most likely known to be a Samaritan, Stephen’s words would have been particularly offensive to non-Messianic religious Jews. Perhaps, they tolerated Peter because he was a Hebrew-speaking Jew, speaking boldly in the temple. But they would not stand to be rebuked by a gospel preaching Samaritan.
This perspective helps us understand why Saul, a highly trained Pharisee, would be so zealous against Christians. Perhaps, he felt half-breed “apostates” were corrupting Judaism. Ironically, Paul became the “Apostle to the Gentiles.”
According to Jewish custom, two lookouts were posted about a hundred yards away in opposite directions whenever someone was sentenced to stoning. Each lookout was given a “cloak” to signal, in case someone was running from afar, with evidence that could acquit the condemned. Saul’s job at the stoning of Stephen, “watching the cloaks,” was most likely to be one of those lookouts.