Rumor Has It: Acts 6:8-15

“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus told His disciples, “so I send you” (John 20:21 KJV).  To be a messenger of Jesus means to face the same challenges and rejection that He faced.

Stephen was one of seven men selected to serve as a bridge between the Greek-speaking “Hellenists” and the rest of the church.  These seven men were also from Greek background, so they “fit right in.”  What the disciples were to the whole church, these seven were to the Greeks.

Acts 6:8-15  And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.  9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.  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.

The synagogue was a local house of prayer and learning.  If the temple gave the Jews a sense of spiritual unity, the synagogue gave them a sense of spiritual diversity.  In Stephen’s day, there were roughly 400 synagogues operating in Jerusalem alone—each with its own unique flavor.  The synagogue mentioned here was run by “Freedmen,” most likely founded by former slaves or prisoners of war.

The Jews were threatened by the early Christians.  The Jews enjoyed an uneasy peace with Rome.  Jesus had tugged at the threads of the social fabric.  Now His followers threatened to unravel it entirely—unless, of course, they could be stopped.

When their arguments could gain no traction (v.11), they turned to rumor.  They  accused Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple—the centerpiece of Jewish religious and national life.   The religious leaders had probably heard Jesus predict the temple’s destruction (John 2:19), so there was enough truth here for the lie to be believable.  Still, Jesus never said that He would destroy the temple.  The rumor was designed to make Stephen look unspiritual and unpatriotic.

Do the details of Stephen’s trial sound at all familiar?  They might remind you of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leadership.   As Christians, we follow a Savior who was misunderstood, mocked, then executed.   How did you expect your life to turn out?

Ask the average person what the world could do without—what do you think they’d say?  The answers would  almost certainly include “religion.”  Extremism is dangerous.  No one wants to be a religious fanatic.  Christianity is increasingly being defined by its opponents—recast as an intellectually backward, sexually repressive, morally regressive band of homophobes.  Just like the lie told of Stephen, it doesn’t have to be true—it only has to be believable.

But if the gospel is true, we need not fear such challenges.  Why?  Because Christ’s sacrifice clothes us in His righteousness.  We have God’s approval—who else’s do we need?  This tells us at least three things about living in a hostile world:

  • Our reputation is secure.  Because of the gospel, God labels me “righteous.”  What does it matter, then, if others label me a “fanatic?”  Who I am in the world’s eyes doesn’t change who I am in God’s eyes.
  • The gospel gives us the power to offend others, if that’s what they need.  The gospel is offensive to an unbelieving world(Galatians 5:11).  It makes us uncomfortable to make others uncomfortable.  But if I have God’s approval, I don’t need to fear the consequences of sharing my faith with outsiders.
  • Christ wins.  Jesus has already been through this before.  He conquered sin and the grave.  His resurrection tells us that no matter how bad things get, it’s not the end of the story.  He really will make all things new.

The gospel gives us the confidence to follow Christ in a hostile world.  Therefore, let us pray that like Stephen, we can pray for boldness and confidence in sharing our faith with our world.

Crisis Management: Acts 6:1-7

Church division is nothing new.  The church had barely begun before church leaders faced a crisis:

Acts 6:1-7  Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.

In first century culture, men married young.  Women often outlived their husbands.  Leaders in Jerusalem had established an early form of “welfare” to care for these widows.  But there was a cultural problem.  The “Hellenists” had embraced Greek culture and language, while the “Hebrews” had maintained their Jewish roots.  Because of this division, the Hellenists thought that their widows weren’t getting a fair shake.

Today’s church is no stranger to complaints.  The music is too loud.  The music is too soft.  The speaking is too deep.  The speaking is too shallow.  The toilet paper unspools in the wrong direction.

In today’s individualized society, preference trumps purpose.  How often have you found yourself looking for a church that “satisfies your needs?” And these are hard expectations to live up to.  Social scientist David Wells observes that the role of the church leader has shifted from “shepherd” to the dual roles of “manager” and “psychologist.” In short, pastors are expected to be all things to all men.  The gospel takes a back seat to “crisis management.”

But the early church understood that it could never live up to this ideal.  So they found a solution:

2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.  3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.  4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”  5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.  6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

Up until now, the church was a network of households.  But the church was expanding.  Social challenges had to be met.  The choosing of the seven was the first step toward greater organization.  The church would later call these men “deacons,” from a Greek word that refers to serving tables (see verse 2).

But these men were not chosen at random.  The choosing of the seven represented a very specific strategy:

  • Choosing Greeks: If you were living in that culture, you’d notice that all seven men had Greek names.  The men chosen to address the problem understood the culture they were addressing.  This was more than a “crisis management team.”  This was a strategy for healing division.
  • Focusing on the gospel: Did you notice the purpose behind the selection?  Read verse 4 again: “But we [the disciples] will devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.”  The disciples would not permit a momentary crisis to overshadow their eternal purpose.

Focus on preference and you create a culture of consumers.  Focus on purpose and you create a family of disciples.  Today’s church is in need of leadership whose priority is the gospel.  How can you pray for your church leadership?

  • Spiritual strength.  It’s not just easy to “coast” on your natural skills and ability—it’s deadly.  A leader’s sense of value is often based on his last performance.  Pray that your church leaders would not measure themselves based on others’ expectations, but be continually refreshed in their identity in Christ.
  • Social support.  It truly is “lonely at the top.”  Leadership strains relationships, and pastors can suffer from feelings of woundedness and inadequacy.  Pray that your leaders find support in friends and family.
  • Skillful steering.  Like the early church, leaders have to pick their battles.  Pray that they have the wisdom to handle these crises, and maintain a clear focus on the gospel.

But above all, pray that leadership would be a continual source of joy.  Our passage concludes with the results of these leadership choices:

7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.