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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Attack

The Attack

With the conclusion of his defense argument, at the height of his accuser's blood-red rage, Stephen realizes that his time on earth was finished...his immediate future is in heaven. Stephen exclaims aloud the incredible vision of the heavens opened and Jesus standing beside God.

Stephen's accusers, the religious rulers of Jerusalem, did not join him in wonder and awe.

"But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him." Acts 7:57 (ESV)

These were grown men, with the power to judge and convict, educated and experienced in dealing with people. Yet in the face of incontrovertible evidence of their own sin, they become like children, worse than children, they become like animals.

STOPPED: synecho (to hold together, to compress); from sun (together) and echo (to hold)

The enraged religious rulers literally held both hands to their ears to muffle the words of Stephen. His defensive argument and counter-accusation of idolatry and rejection of God had brought the court to the very edge of physical violence. They had barely held their temper, grinding their teeth, until Stephen described his vision of Jesus.

RUSHED: hormao (to start, spur or urge on, to dash or plunge); from horme (a violent impulse, an onset)

TOGETHER: homothymadon (unanimously); from homos (the same) and thymos (passion, as if breathing hard); from thyo (to rush, or breathe hard, to sacrifice or immolate)

The attack on Stephen was impulsive and reactive. It was not planned or pronounced, yet the entire council, as if controlled by one mind, reacted violently and passionately to Stephen's words describing Christ.

To act "together" is not always a violent behavior. "Homothymadon" is used to describe the prayer time experienced by the disciples in the upper room. The word is often translated as "with one accord".

The word, "rushed", however, is always found in connection with violent fear or anger. The demonized herd of swine "rushed" violently down a steep place and perished in the sea. An angry mob "rushed" into a theater, attacking two of Paul's companions, as if to lynch them.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What experience have you had with violent anger? What drives people to react violently to philosophical differences? What deeply held desires does religion threaten? What modern conflicts are most likely caused by this same religious fervor?

"They cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, - Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. - And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, - Lord, do not hold this sin against them.- And when he had said this, he fell asleep." Acts 7:58-60 (ESV)

STONED: lithoboleo (to throw stones); from lithos (a stone) and ballo (to throw)

Stoning was well-established as a form of capital punishment since the Law of Moses. The first recorded reference concerns idol worship:

"Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones." Leviticus 20:2 (ESV)

God required the stoning and death of any who sacrificed children to the god Molech.

STONE: ragam (to cast together stones, to kill with stones)

Stoning was required for wizardry, blasphemy, working on the Sabbath day, children who were stubborn and rebellious or gluttons and drunkards. Stoning was a method of cleansing evil from the people:

"So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear." Deuteronomy 21:21 (ESV)

During the conquest of Jericho, God required the entire city to be destroyed, allowing the Israelites to claim nothing as prizes or booty. An Israelite named Achan took for himself a beautiful cloak, 200 pieces of silver and a bar of gold, hiding them inside his tent. When discovered, Achan and his family were stoned to death. (Joshua 7)

There are many references in the Old Testament to stoning, sanctioned by God Himself. The New Testament is different. Only nine references to stoning can be found in the New Testament, and all of the references imply condemnation of the practice. In all of the instances in the New Testament, the act of stoning is described as unfair, undeserved or in other ways as unfavorable.

The most direct example of the contrast between the Old and New Testament's portrayal of stoning is seen in the Book of John:

"The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, - Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? - This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, - Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her. - And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, - Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? - She said, - No one, Lord. - And Jesus said, - Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." John 8:3-11 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How are Christians to view capital punishment? Should the response of Jesus to the adulterous woman influence the way our society punishes crime? How did the coming of Jesus Christ change the way God would have His people punish crime?

The work of killing Stephen with stones was physically demanding, requiring the executioners to lay aside their jackets in order to continue:

"The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul." Acts 7:58 (ESV)

The garments were given to a young man named Saul, implying that Saul was part of the mob that attacked Stephen, but he must have been not yet of age to actually participate. The leaders of the mob, although responding with passionate anger, retained enough self-control to follow some degree of protocol, restricting participation in the death sentence to men older than Saul.

This foreshadowing hint seems to be an intriguing literary device, used by the author to heighten the surprise when we later discover the rest of the story. "Saul" will become a vicious agent of vengeance, persecuting many more "Stephens" on his own. At the height of his violent anti-Christian pogram, "Saul" will encounter Truth, becoming blind for a time and returning miraculously back to health, becoming a tireless disciple of the One Whom he formerly despised.

"Saul" will become "Paul", and will humble himself in prayer:

"Lord, they themselves know that in one synagogue after another I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And when the blood of Stephen your witness was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him." Acts 22:19-20 (ESV)

Jesus Himself will forgive Paul, making the one-time persecuter one of his Apostles:

"He said to me, - Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles." Acts 22:21 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what way can you identify with the young Saul, a proud, rigidly-religious leader, anxious to prove superiority, whether through verbal debate or violent conflict? What part of Saul's religious training would become useful after his conversion? What part of your experiences before Christ have become useful in your life now as a Christian?

Image provided by solylunafamilia, Creative Commons License, modified by the author using GIMP