Friday, July 31, 2015

Man of God

Sometimes I lay down and close my eyes and pray to God. 

Acts 6:8-15

New International Version (NIV)

Stephen Seized

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

Last Sunday it seems we were just lining up seven men who would take charge of feeding widows in the midst of two branches of Jewish culture. The Hellenistic (that is, Greek influenced) Jews and the Hebraic (that is, Hebrew centered) Jews. Out of the seven there is one that gets a bit more description than the others. The writer of Acts seems to be setting this up for his readers to expect more. And, more is what they'll get. 

Last week's description of Stephen read:
a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit
Now that we have entered this next section the description reads:
a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
 I do believe that's what the apostles had prayed for back when John and Peter had their hands slapped for preaching about this Jesus. They prayed that God would perform "signs and wonders among the people". Sometimes our prayers get answered in a way we are not expecting and through people we did not designate or plan on. I picture Stephen as one of those people eagerly waiting in the wings. "Pick me! Pick me!" When seven men are named to take care of the widows, his name comes first and with extra description. Now, when some religious leaders come to find someone to persecute, it's Stephen. I can't help but wonder why, though. What was it about this man that makes the religious folks go nuts? I suspect that these Synagogue folks are already looking for someone in this group of disciples and apostles to pick out. The religious group wanted to do more to the apostles in Chap 5. They really wanted to imprison them and keep them under lock & key. Later, after they were miraculously set free, the scriptures note the feelings of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Chap 5 v33. After having some discussion with them concerning how Jesus dies at their hands...
33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 
 There is already "road rage" type feelings here. They want somebody's head. They want to take their anger out on somebody. Stephen seems to be standing out in the crowd. It also seems that he is doing more than just feeding widows. I feel as if Luke, the author of Acts, is looking in on this scene with a pastoral reverence. Many people in my shoes have look at their congregations knowing that this person or that person has gifts and abilities beyond what their current labor and work is currently achieving. Scroll back up and read those descriptions of Stephen again. This guy has been in outreach ministry, but his Pastor can see that he has gifts for the preaching and teaching ministry. Like a good lay person, Stephen is out doing more than the simple title of his ministry. He is doing more than just caring for widows. He is witnessing. Explaining the story of Jesus and why he came. He is praying over people. People are finding healing. God is moving through the ministry of Stephen.

And, the religious community is taking note. The Sanhedrin has zeroed in.

What was the "Synagogue of the Freedmen"?
It is important to note that there were many different groups with their various tiles referring to regions that they came from or a connection to some piece of history. We've made note of 2 groups already and their cultural significance. Depending on the translation you read from this particular group of Jews would be referred to as the "Freedmen" or "Libertines". Read again where these people are from - "Cyrene and Alexandria, as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia." The Greek towns lying west from Cyrene would naturally be called "Libyan". OK, so they are the Jews from this region. The title "Freedmen"would also give significance to what they went through in those places and regions. These are descendants of the Jews who went into captivity through places Assyria. Their descendants grew up in regions outside of Israel and have come back to settle in the land of their forefathers. Who knows the kinds of travesties and hardships they have endured? Now, they are free. But, freedom doesn't always bring with it a joyous attitude. Sometimes hardship and pain can bring a hardened heart and a scowl. Instead of being liberalized by their residence abroad, these "freedmen" were more tenacious of Judaism and more bitter against Stephen than those who had never left Judea.

It is important to note: within any religion there are many groups and movements. 
In the Gospels there are 4 major groups that stand out. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Zealots and the Essenes. Today there are many different groups represented within the framework of Judaism, from Orthodox and Conservative to Progressive and Reformed. "Reconstructionist" Judaism and "Classical Reform". Over in the world of Islam there is a break down of many different groups based upon regional makeup and family lineage. Names that you might be familiar with from hearing them in the news. The "Shiites" and the "Sunnis". Sufi and Ahmadiyya are two groups with whom you might not be as familiar. Look at Christianity. The family tree that roots itself in the history of Jewish culture is widely branched out by the time you get to the top of the tree. All the denominations and groups. Methodist. Baptist. Lutheran. Presbyterian. And, then the break downs inside of those titles.

I say all this to bring to light that while the essence of a particular religion is present in the heart of all the groups represented, every group has their own particular angle. Every group has particular facets and doctrines that are of importance to their group. Later in the Apostle Paul's letters, it seems he is running into Jews who aren't necessarily persecuting the Christians as much as being antagonists bent on refuting and discrediting this teaching about Jesus. The Jews that come against Stephen and the believers here in Acts 6 have one thing in mind. Kill the "Man of God". They want his head. They want this preaching about this would be Messiah to stop. And, the only way they see to do that is to rid the world of the one doing the preaching. They come to do whatever they have to do to make sure that this is done. Lie. Pervert the truth enough to get Stephen in trouble. Get other people to say things that he didn't actually say. Misquote him. All because they don't like the message that is being preached.

Everybody who did not believe that Messiah had come would have been in opposition to what the apostles are teaching and the disciples are believing. But, some groups take it a little more personally. Don't we have that problem today? When it comes to dealing with the evils in the world today and interjecting, dialoguing with other people, every group handles themselves differently. We have Christian groups who keep to themselves, like the Essenes would have done. We label them as "separatists", having gone off on their own into the desert and not interjecting with the world. We have groups like the Westboro Baptists who feel the need to go and protest anything and everything. Kind of makes you feel like you're dealing with a Zealot who would have done anything for their country. These people are a bit too overzealous for the Kingdom of God. We have people like the Sadducees. Did you realize that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body? On the edges of our picture of Christianity, we have groups like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons who hold to some strange beliefs. The Sadducees didn't last long after Jesus would have been resurrected and goes back to sit at the right hand of the Father in power and glory. Kind of hard to hang on to that non-resurrection belief when all these new believers are spouting off about the Resurrected Jesus. Then we have Pharisees. There's no other group that we draw more parallels too than this particular lot. The people who are so rigid and demanding and legalistic in their mindset and worldview. Everybody else has to be doing exactly what we think they have to be doing according to the way we have interpreted the law to mean and say. Pharisees are found in all facets and walks of religion. And, Jesus was hardest on these ones who carried the law and taught it to others.

It says here that Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin. What exactly is that? 
We remember the word from the Gospel accounts. Jesus was also brought before the Sanhedrin. The word Sanhedrin literally means a "sitting together", hence an "assembly" or "council" was an assembly of twenty-three to seventy-one men appointed in every city in the Land of Israel. In this political world we live in with agendas and plans made, councils can be formed and made with whoever the opposing groups wants to be on said "assembly". Who was making up this particular group of Sanhedrin? What regions and cities did they represent? If it's from twenty-three to seventy-one men, how many were actually there that day? Maybe just the ones they needed to get the desired result they wanted? Things don't change much over the centuries, do they? 

I'd like to come back to the notion of their cruelty. I speculate about these "Libertines" or Freedmen, as they were called. They don't seem very free. They don't seem to be living in the joy of their freedom. Why are they this way? Sometimes the hard times we endure in life tend to make us harder. With this particular group, the hardness doesn't seem to add up. If in fact they are descendants of people who were once in bondage from Assyria or Babylon, think about how long ago that would have been. Would it have been four, five, six hundred years prior? Why would anybody that many generations down the road still harbor any resentment or hardness in their hearts? Once again, our current world repeats the history we see here in the scriptures. Islamic groups blame today's Christians for atrocities that misguided people from Europe, who followed misguided leaders, who promoted the name of Jesus and came to the Middle East and pillaged the land for all it was worth. How does anything that happened so long ago really and truly affect today's generation? Why hang on to such bitterness and strife for this long? 

If in fact these men, who are opposed to Stephen, are in fact "Freedmen" as they claim, it was their ancestors long ago who were in bondage, not them. It is about what we pass along to future generations. It is about what we choose to keep alive and give life to that matters. Racial tension. Drug abuse. Alcoholic tendencies. Children aren't always born with these things. They are learned behaviors. Children follow what they see. Parents have the responsibility to lay new ground for their children to walk on. If we buy into the idea that old habits are ok to pass along, then our children will follow the same paths our ancestors did. Hatred will continue to flourish. Spiritual hardness will continue to prevail in the hearts of those who come after us. Unless we find a way to put it to rest. The opposite is too often the result however. We find someone to take our frustrations out upon. We don't seek the healing and the hope we need. We find things to nit pick about. We find things to gripe and complain about. We find people to persecute. We find people to grind under our feet hoping all the while that it will make us feel better to be in control of another person's fate. 

If you happen to be the one receiving the persecution, take heart. 
This is exactly what Jesus said would happen. And, there is great reward for those who temper the fire of persecution. It says here that those who looked upon the face of Stephen thought they were looking upon "the face of an angel". Oh, to be so focused upon the person of Jesus that none of the outside pressures mount us as they could. There are people around us who trust too much in their established religion and cause the world around them pain and heartache. Their focus is not upon pleasing God, but upon getting what they want for themselves to make themselves happy. This is how Jesus said it would be. He didn't say it would be easy either, enduring the scrutiny of others. May the Spirit give us wisdom as we speak. May our hearts be encouraged by the fact that, even though the parties we engage in conversation do not listen to our words, the words we use are the words God has given us to speak. 

This one thing we know. That glory awaits. 

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