As he writes about the early Jerusalem church, Luke holds our attention by alternating public and private events. The Sept. 13 lesson involved internal community organizing. This lesson takes us back to the Temple Mount, teeming with people electrified by the apostles’ teaching and healing (5:12-16). The buzz this creates is not surprising in a world crowded with sick and disabled people with minimal health care.
However, since no good deed goes unpunished, the high priest and his cronies are jealous of all the attention they are losing, so once again apostles are arrested.
This week’s reading includes Peter’s well-known declaration, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” Then he explains why God and human authority are contrasted: “You killed Jesus, but God raised him up and exalted him as Leader and Savior of the people, providing forgiveness of sins.” In other words, you temple priests are on the wrong side and are no longer worthy to represent God.
This infuriates them. Fortunately, one of the council, Gamaliel, is more level-headed: “Calm down. Let’s not ignore our recent history. We’ve already dealt with two would-be messiahs and their followers. These movements came to nothing. The same will happen here, unless this Jesus really is from God. If so, do you want to be fighting against God?” Grudgingly, the others concede, but first get in their licks by flogging the apostles. Yet even the pain of bleeding backs is turned on its head by the apostles’ rejoicing in being worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
Although today we can see whose side God was on in Acts 5, how can we be sure when a renewal movement today challenges an established church?
Before we can make sense of the lesson for Sept. 27, we need to fill in some blanks. Acts 6:1-6 again focuses on the growth problems of the Jesus-community. “Hebrews” are Palestinian Jews; “Hellenists” are Jews from other parts of the Mediterranean world who returned to the Holy City either to retire or because they have joined this intentional community. The high number of unattached women (widows, divorced women, former prostitutes) testifies to their acceptance into this movement. If we properly translate “daily distribution of food” into “daily table service (diakonia)” in verse 1, we can see that these women were given the task of preparing and serving food at the daily common meals.
Seven Hellenist men are selected to organize the table service. But the fact that at least some of them soon join the preaching ministry of the apostles implies that the women probably handled most of the bread-breaking details.
In any case, the Hellenist Stephen is soon out and about performing “great wonders and signs” in the public sphere and getting into trouble with fellow Hellenists from the Synagogue of the Freedmen (6:8-9). The charges they make against him are for “speaking against this holy place and the law” and saying that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed on to us” (6:13-14).
I include this interlude because it is necessary in order to understand Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7. His main point is to answer the charges noted above.
Assuming I already knew Old Testament history, I used to ignore this long sermon — until I read Scott Spencer’s Acts commentary. This is biblical history with spin: Stephen wants to show that God was working in many other places besides “this holy place” of Jerusalem and the temple.
Abraham left Mesopotamia and wandered over many lands, though God gave him none as a heritage. His descendants were “resident aliens” in a country belonging to others. Joseph was sold into Egypt and brought his entire family there. Moses was also a “resident alien” and eventually was rejected by “our ancestors.”
Stephen provides evidence that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands.” His climax is a stinging indictment of people who thought they were on Moses’ and God’s side but who ended up killing God’s Righteous One.
For discussion: Show how every part of Stephen’s sermon rebuts the charge made by his opponents in 6:13-14. How does it portray Luke’s knowledge of Israel’s history as well as his challenge to the current leaders?
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.