As the number of disciples in the church grew from one hundred twenty (Acts 1:15), to three thousand (Acts 2:41), to five thousand (Acts 4:4), to multitudes (Acts 5:14), the difficulties and challenges of congregational ministry also grew. Growing pains can be tough! “As the disciples were increasing in number, there arose a complaint” (Acts 6:1) concerning certain widows who were not being adequately served.
Directed by God’s Spirit, the Apostles gathered the believers. “Brothers and sisters, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we can appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word... so they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3-5) and six others to serve as Deacons. With harmony restored, “the word of God spread (and) the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly in number” (Acts 6:7).
“Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). When “opposition arose... they were unable to stand up against (Stephen’s) wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking”(Acts 6:10). Stephen’s antagonists “stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, seized him, and took him to the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12).
The first fifty verses of the seventh chapter of Acts record Stephen’s sermon preached before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. Starting with Abraham, and continuing with Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Stephen recounted the history of the Jewish people. Stephen reminded his listeners of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, the golden calf, and their forty years as desert-dwellers. As he was concluding his remarks, he alluded to the divided kingdom and the exile in Babylon. “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:51–52).
Saul was there! He heard Stephen’s sermon and the stinging rebuke. Together, with the rest of the angry mob, as “they heard these things, they were enraged and gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54). As the throng battered him with rocks, “the witnesses laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). Can you see the super-spiritual Saul? His eyes are squinting smugly, a sneer is pasted across his face, his arms are folded tightly across his chest, and his head nods with every bloody thud... thud... thud! “Saul agreed with putting him to death” (Acts 8:1).
“Severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Hatred for the Jesus-followers dominated Saul’s life! “Saul was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He went to the high priest and requested letters from him to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any men or women who belonged to the Way, he might bring them as prisoners to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1–2).
But we know that this isn’t the end of the story...