10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” – Acts 6:10-7:1 ESV
Stephen found himself in a dispute with some men from the synagogue of the Freedmen. These were former Roman slaves who had converted to Judaism and would have been considered Hellenistic or Greek-speaking Jews. Luke tells us they had at one time been citizens of such places as Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia. And while they were Hellenists, like Stephen, they took exception to his teaching and preaching. Stephen was “full of grace and power” and “was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8 ESV), but these men were, for some reason, unimpressed. Luke does not reveal to us the content of Stephen’s message to them, but he simply records that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10 ESV). Stephen was speaking in the power of the Spirit of God and was most likely sharing the good news concerning Jesus’ resurrection and His offer of eternal life to all who would accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. But when the Freedmen found themselves unable to successfully refute the words of Stephen, they resorted to false accusations and liable. They encouraged others to come forward and accuse Stephen of blasphemy against Moses and God. And when Stephen was eventually hauled in front of the Sanhedrin, they had false witnesses ready to report that, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV). Stephen was being falsely portrayed as a rebel and a radical. All of this should have an eerily familiar ring to it. In his gospel, Mark records a similar encounter between Jesus and the Sanhedrin.
53 They took Jesus to the high priest’s home where the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law had gathered..…55 Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find evidence against Jesus, so they could put him to death. But they couldn’t find any. 56 Many false witnesses spoke against him, but they contradicted each other. 57 Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” 59 But even then they didn’t get their stories straight! – Mark 14:53, 55-59 NLT
Stephen, like Jesus, was simply doing the will of God, but he too faced opposition and the animosity of men who would resort to lies and half-truths in order to shut down the truth of God. What was it that Stephen had been teaching and preaching? Luke does not tell us. But it is quite easy to assume that Stephen was simply teaching what he had been taught by the apostles. And they had been keeping the command of Jesus, given to them as part of His great commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV).
Because of the nature of the accusations against Stephen, it is likely that he had been recounting many of the words of Jesus Himself. He could have been reiterating the content of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where He had refuted the interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees concerning the Mosaic Law. Jesus had raised the bar when it came to obedience to the law, demanding behavior that was far more than exterior in nature, but which flowed from the heart. And it was Jesus who had told the crowd that day on the hillside, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 ESV). It had been Jesus who had said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6 ESV). Whatever it was that Stephen had been saying and teaching, there were those who twisted his words and contorted his meaning in order to set him up as a troublemaker. They accused him of blasphemy or speaking evil of Moses and of God. In essence, they were accusing Stephen of attacking everything they held dear: The great patriarch, Moses, and his law; the holy Temple of God; and Yahweh Himself.
What is interesting is that Luke prefaces all of this with the statement that Stephen was “full of grace and power.” He was not belligerent or abusive. He was gracious, kind and operating under the divine influence of the Spirit of God. His words were true. His intentions were pure. His motivation was godly and based on a desire to see others come to faith in Christ. But, like Jesus Himself, Stephen was misunderstood and falsely accused. He was portrayed as a dangerous menace to the Jewish way of life. But Luke portrays Stephen in a completely different light when he describes “his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15 ESV). Like Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, Stephen literally glowed with the glory of God. And the members of the Sanhedrin, Stephen’s accusers, and the men from the synagogue of the Freedmen, all saw this phenomena. Luke describes them as being transfixed, their eyes locked on the glowing face of Stephen. And whether these men recognized it or not, this should remind us of a similar scene recorded in the Old Testament, involving Moses and the people of Israel.
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. – Exodus 34:29-30 NLT
Moses had been with God. Stephen was filled with the Spirit of God. And it showed. But the reaction of the crowd surrounding Stephen would be quite different than that of Aaron and the people of Israel. Luke simply records that the high priest responded by asking Stephen a question: “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1 ESV). Once again, there is a remarkable similarity between this event and that of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin on the night He had been betrayed by Judas. Mark records that, after having heard the false accusations against Jesus, the high priest turned to Him and asked, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” (Mark 14:60 ESV). And Mark states that Jesus remained silent.
But, as we shall see, Stephen will speak up. He will use the opportunity placed before him to answer each and every accusation against him. But not in an attempt to escape the hostility of the Sanhedrin, but to share the truth regarding Moses, the law, and Yahweh, the God of the Jewish people. He will launch into one of the longest messages recorded in the New Testament. And he will speak under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit, delivering a powerful message that is not only gospel-centered, but an historically based retelling of God’s relationship with the Jewish people. He will take their accusations of blasphemy and soundly refute them, revealing his strong knowledge of Hebrew history, even though he was not a native-speaking Hebrew.
Stephen, full of grace and power, was facing the hostility of a crowd filled with hate and envy. These men could not understand what was going on. They saw Stephen and the other disciples of Jesus as nothing more than a threat to their way of life. They were a nuisance and their message regarding Jesus as the Messiah was a direct threat to their entire belief system. Or so they thought. But Stephen is about to expose their gross misunderstanding of all that they held dear. He is going to use their own heritage against them, revealing that Abraham, Joseph, Moses, the law, the tabernacle, David, and Solomon were all pointing to someone and something far greater: The Righteous One.
Jesus had come and they had missed Him. Or, at least, they had refused to accept Him. Now, the Spirit had come, and they refused to acknowledge Him, and instead, attributed His work to drunkenness on the part of the disciples. Stephen, like the apostles, was “doing great wonders and signs among the people”, but there were those who rejected these outward manifestations of the Spirit’s power, and did all that they could do to discredit God’s messenger, to deny the Spirit’s power and to destroy the gospel of Jesus Christ.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.