Friday, November 4, 2011

Stoning Stephen (Acts 6:5)

How was Stephen killed? He was stoned to death

Stephen enters the Biblical text by being elected as one of the first seven deacons (Acts 6:5). It appears he stood out from his peers as he is listed first and is characterized in language typically reserved for prophets - “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5 NASB)”.

The nascent Christian movement was growing rapidly (Acts 6:7) and Stephen’s talents (Acts 6:5, 8) placed him at the forefront. One group’s success is another’s threat and Stephen faced opposition from a contingent of Disapora Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6:8). Unable to handle the truth or refute it, they convinced some men to serve as false witnesses claiming that Stephen spoke “blasphemous words against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11 NASB).”

Though the resistance began with only a small party it escalated, a riot ensued (Acts 6:14) and the incident culminated with an audience before the high priest (Acts 7:1). Throughout the charges, Stephen remained silent until he faced the high priest and when he finally spoke, he delivered one of the longest speeches in the book of Acts (Acts 7:2-53). The filibuster reviewed “salvation history” (heilsgeschichte) and concluded with the acknowledgment that the religious establishment had a long history of persecuting prophets (Acts 7:52).

The trial transformed into a lynching and Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58-60), a common method of death in such situations (II Chronicles 24:20-22; Philo (20 BCE-50 CE), Special Laws 1.54-57; Josephus (37-100), Antiquities 14.2.1). Midrash clearly outlines the protocol for stoning (Midrash Sanhedrin 6.1-4) and in the case of Stephen, it was not followed aside from holding the execution outside court in conjunction with Leviticus 24:14. This is because Stephen was a victim of lynching, not capital punishment.

Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) explains:

The stoning makes clear that they thought Stephen was blaspheming. It should be noted that nothing is said about the high priest offering a verdict, no formal sentence is announced, and nothing here suggests anything other than a lynching, an act of violent passion. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 276)
Stephen’s innocense is highlighted throughout the account. The text claims that “all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15 NASB).” As he died, the deacon experienced a theophany (divine appearance) uttering among his famous last words - “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56 NASB).” After asking Jesus to take him and forgive his persecutors, Stephen died (Acts 7:59-60).

Why was Stephen killed? The charge against Stephen was the same Jesus faced - was the rationale the same? Is anyone today in danger of dying for similar reasons? Should contemporary Christians pose a threat to the religious establishment?

Stephen’s death is a turning point in Christian history and the book of Acts. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) analyzes, “Stephen is a pivotal figure: he anticipates the future success and conflict of the mission among the nations, but his death also puts a close to the Jerusalem narrative (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 112).”

The lynching made Stephen the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek martyros meaning “witness”. The man who was murdered because of false witnesses remains a witness centuries after his death. If Stephen’s death was intended to be a deterrent for conversion, the action failed. As Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote, “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins (Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, 352).”

To what lengths are you willing to go to for your faith? Are you willing to die? Are you grateful that you don’t live in a region where you need to? Do you respect others who die for their faith whatever that faith may be?

“The prophet and the martyr do not see the hooting throng. Their eyes are fixed on the eternities.” - Benjamin Cardozo (1870-1938)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Don’t Let The Sun Go Down (Ephesians 4:26)

Complete: “Do not let the ___ go down on your anger.” Sun (Ephesians 4:26)

The second half of the book of Ephesians is devoted to refining the believer’s conduct in the world (Ephesians 4:1-6:24). Amongst Paul’s practical advise to his former congregation is the charge to not go to bed angry (Ephesians 4:26).

Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity. (Ephesians 4:26-27 NASB)
The admonition to be angry yet not to sin is a quotation from Psalm 4:5. In the context of Ephesians, Paul is speaking to those who are in a loving community (Ephesians 4:2, 25). When living in community, anger with one another is virtually inevitable. Andrew D. Lester (1939-2010) writes, “Pauline theology recognizes and assumes that Christians, like all human beings, are bound to experience anger (Lester, The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling, 144).”

As such, Paul sets a limitation to anger. At some point, anger must be relinquished. As one of American statesman Colin Powell (b. 1937) ’s “13 Rules of Leadership” reads - “Get mad, then get over it.”

The reason for this restriction is clearly stated. One must control anger or else it will control the person angered. If anger is held for too long, it will give the devil a “foothold” (Ephesians 4:27 NIV).

What constructive ways do you deal with your anger - how do you let it go? What is the maddest you have ever been? Have you ever gone to bed angry? Do you feel anger is a sin?

Paul’s advice is not to avoid anger but rather to control it. Anger, if exercised properly, is not a sin. In fact, most read Paul’s assertion to “be angry” (Ephesians 4:26 NASB) as a command rather than a condition. There are some situations in which it would be sinful not to be angry.

Harold W. Hoehner (1935-2009) explains:

“It is necessary to acknowledge that anger is not intrinsically sinful...God expresses anger. What causes God to be angry? When wrong has been done against a person or against God himself. However, when God is angry, he is always in control of his anger. Unlike God, however, people have a tendency to allow anger to control them. Hence, the second command, “do not sin” is necessary. (Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, 621)
In what situation is anger the appropriate response? Have you ever experienced “righteous indignation”?

“Anger, if not restrained, is frequently more hurtful to us than the injury that provokes it.” - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE-65 C)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Barsabbas: Always a Bridesmaid (Acts 1:23)

When Matthias was chosen to take Judas’ place, who was the losing candidate? Barsabbas Justus

While the disciples were waiting for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:7-8), they occupied their time by electing a new member to fill Judas’ spot in The Twelve (Acts 1:15-26). The criteria for the job was longevity, someone who had been with Jesus since his ministry’s incipience (Acts 1:21-22). As such, the candidates were drawn from Jesus’ wider circle of followers (Luke 10:1-17).

Whether only two candidates qualified or the pool was somehow reduced, two finalists were chosen - “Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus)” and Matthias (Acts 1:23 NASB). (The fact that the author felt the need to supply so many names to identify Barsabbas is a clear tip off he was not going to get the job.) The final decision was made via prayer (Acts 1:24) and casting lots (Acts 1:25-26), a traditional method of determining God’s will in Judaism (Leviticus 16:8; Numbers 26:55-56, 33:54; Joshua 19:1-40; I Chronicles 26:12-16; Jonah 1:7-8; Micah 2:5). The lot fell to Matthias (Acts 1:26).

This incident marks Barsabbas’ only appearance in the New Testament. There is a Judas Barsabbas who appears later in Acts and many have conjectured that the two were brothers (Acts 15:22). According to Eusebius (263-339), Joseph Barsabbas was among the seventy Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1; Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 1.12). Otherwise little is known of Barsabbas.

Some have speculated that given his later prominence, Paul was God’s choice to be the twelfth disciple and that the eleven remaining disciples jumped the gun in electing a new member.

Were the disciples correct in trying to reconstitute The Twelve? When have you been passed over? How did it make you feel? How do you think Barsabbas felt about this rejection?

Twice Barsabbas could have been selected as one of The Twelve and twice he was overlooked. He lost out on what was presumably a dream job early and when a vacancy became open, the carrot was dangled before him again, providing a glimmer of hope. Just as the light shone in, the door was once again slammed in his face. The second time, he knew how close he was as he made the shortest of short lists. Barsabbas faced rejection publicly amongst his peers and ostensibly the rejection came from God. And no explanation was given. Presuming the disciples’ prayer was answered (Acts 1:24-25), Barsabbas was left knowing only that his exclusion was God’s will.

Barsabbas nor his career is ever referenced again in the New Testament. (Neither is Matthias for that matter.) Tradition tells us that Barsabbas did not become bitter or attempt to manipulate his way into a role of leadership. Papias of Hierapolis (60-130) preserves an oral tradition that states Barsabbas drank poison without harm (Mark 16:18) and the apocryphal Acts of Paul relates that Barsabbas was among a Christian group imprisoned by Nero until a vision of the newly martyred Paul appeared to the emperor, precipitating their immediate release.

Barsabbas could have responded in many ways to his rejection. In his case, it truly was an honor just to be nominated. If tradition is correct, Barsabbas demonstrated the characteristics that merited his being a finalist for the position. It appears that Barsabbas never lost sight of his calling even though he was not called to be one of The Twelve.

What are you called to do? Have you ever held high hopes for a position only to be placed in a less prominent slot? How did you respond? What does your response to rejection say about you?

“There's nothing like rejection to make you do an inventory of yourself.” - James Lee Burke (b. 1936)