Luke, in Acts chapter 7 reports the death of Stephen. Stephen was one of those who in chapter 6 we learned were entrusted with the social and pastoral support of the members of the community, especially among the poorer Hebrew Christians. These men were called servants or diakonoi and are the first in the ministry of those today we call deacons.
Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council where he retells the history of Israel. Stephen’s speech is reminiscent of the long speeches that occur in Exodus and Judges in which Israelite history is rehearsed for the benefit of the people, lets they forget their origins as those whom God brought out of slavery in Egypt.
Every time Hebrew history is rehearsed it’s always to make a particular point. The present always dictates how you think about the past. With Stephen we get a good view of how the first generation of Christians related to the Hebrew Scriptures. They were incredibly inventive. Unlike us to day, they did not feel constrained to paint only within the lines of conventional interpretation. For the early Christians, Jesus had changed the course of Jewish history and vastly expanded the destiny of Abraham’s children.
Luke employs the literary convention of rehearsing Israel’s history throughout the early chapters of Acts. When Peter addresses the authorities he, like Stephen begins with historical rehearsal as the basis of introducing a new twist to account for the effect of Jesus. It’s this new twist that gets them into trouble. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. So we see Stephen landing on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets, and so their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. Now, stung by his words, his hearers become consumed with murderous intent.
The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of history is to land in a new and different place in order to explain how Jesus has changed everything. The purpose of Stephen’s rehearsal of the story all his hearers already knew by heart was to land on the theme of the Jews rejection of their prophets. This is the point he wants to bring out about Jesus. He is saying you killed him like you killed or rejected all the prophets before him. So their rejection of Jesus was nothing new. This is too much for his religious hearers. Stung by his words, they become consumed with murderous intent.
When we rehearse the history of God’s relationship with Israel, how does our 21st-century twist shape the way we read the Biblical story? What do we hear in the story and what conclusion does it lead us to that informs us of God’s presence among us?
The Bible read as a kind of rule book or owners manual on how to live life in the present is likely to miss the point that Luke, Stephen, and the other early Christian writers show us. The words on the page are not the story. When we lift our eyes from the literal fixation on the words we come to see the words are part of a bigger story shaped by Jesus, who is bigger than the Bible.
Luke concludes chapter 7 with one seemingly insignificant detail. He tells us that the man entrusted with holding the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen is one called Saul. Luke’s introduction of this seemingly insignificant bystander prepares us for a dramatic shift taking his narrative of the early days of the church in a new direction.