When we speak freely about what we believe, it can provoke many different types of response including opposition. But though some would simply challenge us through counter-argument, there are others who believe they must close down the conversation, with violence if necessary. Christians have often faced such opposition and in Acts 6 & 7 we meet a brutal example.
At the heart of the tale is Stephen, one of the leaders appointed by the church to help with its relief work (Ac 6:3,4). He’s a remarkable man who through the Holy Spirit (Ac 6:3,5,10) has gained powerful insights into the implications of the coming of Christ. Jesus told his disciples that over time they would come to greater clarity about who he is and what he brings (Jo 16:12-14). We see this happen right through the New Testament (eg Ac 15; Ep 3:4-6). Indeed, over 2000 years the church has continued to develop as we have studied, debated and lived the words of Scripture. This carries on today since there remains much to learn, many errors to expose and disagreements to sort out between believers. But we should also be grateful for how far the Lord has brought us and build upon the knowledge of past generations so that the church can grow to its maturity.
But what is Stephen’s insight into Christ? It helps to think about holy ground in the Bible. By the phrase we mean a location on earth suited to God appearing there. The first example is Eden’s garden where the Lord walked (Ge 3:8). However, that was closed after Adam’s sin (Ge 3:24) and then lost in the flood. But later in the Old Testament you get little reminders of it, temporary places of holy ground such as the mountain where God met Moses (Ex 3:1-5). And then to Israel God gave the tabernacle/temple which acted as a model of holy ground with its Holy Place, Most Holy Place and the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 26:33; the Ark was a golden box which reminded one of Eden’s garden). This model was part of the way the Lord showed Israel all Adam had lost and restrained their rebelliousness (De 32:5), until the Saviour came to set them free from sin (Je 31: 33,34). However, their waywardness was such that the temple was destroyed and the ark lost during invasion in 586BC (2Ki 25). Of course, the Israelites later rebuilt the temple (Ez 1:1-4), but the ark remained absent and what Stephen sees is this: that the model of holy ground is no longer needed because God’s holy place on earth has moved. Where to? Jesus. He was the holy one (Lk 1:35): a fully holy spot upon the earth. Then when he ascended to heaven, he filled his people with the Holy Spirit (Ac 2:4) making us a holy temple (2Co 6:16) which stretches across both earth and heaven. Stephen has started to see this truth and is working out its implications.
Luke’s brief comment concerning many priests coming into the people of God (v7) brings out what is happening: God is moving his staff across to the new temple, although actually in it all believers will be priests (1Pe 2:9; Ex 19:6). Stephen himself, meanwhile, shows the reality of God being with him (v8). Sadly, this provokes trouble (v9). His opponents are from a synagogue of international Jews, originally set up for those returning home after slavery in Rome. Stephen’s ideas undermine all they’ve built their lives upon and so they argue hard, though unsuccessfully, against him (v10). They then resort to dirty fighting, making him out to be slandering Moses and God (v11), resulting in his arrest (v12). Charges are laid and false witnesses appear (v13), saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and Moses (v14). But as all look at Stephen, they find him transformed (v15; cf Ex 34:29). God is exposing the new, heavenly temple to them!
Stephen is special; most believers don’t have such insights, speak so freely or display an angelic countenance. But we can feel pressure from our society to shut up about Jesus and when we do, we need to hold onto the truths we see in Stephen. As God’s temple, his holy ground where the Spirit stands, we are protected more completely than the ark of the covenant ever was (1Co 3:17). And in that safety we should find a peace and a joy, which others can see in us (1Pe 3:13-15).