Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”
And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
–Acts 6:9-14, 7:1 (ESV)
When Caiaphas asked Stephen “Are these charges true,” he in effect asked, “Are you and your sect speaking against Moses, against the Torah, and against the Temple?
The charges were serious, and the trial had ramifications for the entire Yeshua (Jesus) sect (of Judaism). As a community leader over the assembly of Yeshua’s disciples, Stephen represented the beliefs of the whole community. If the court found him guilty of blasphemy or apostasy, they might turn against the whole sect.
Last Sunday, at the local church I attend, Pastor Randy’s sermon, as he covers the book of Acts, was specifically on Acts 7:1-19. Since the portion of Acts covered by Volume 6 of the Torah club for this coming week’s Torah reading is Acts 7, I thought it would be a good opportunity to compare what is being taught about Stephen and his defense to the Sanhedrin in my church vs. FFOZ’s viewpoint on the same event to see the similarities and differences. I didn’t get what I was looking for. Here’s why as outlined in the printed conclusions of the Pastor’s sermon last week:
Conclusion: Stephen’s sermon helps us to remember…
- The sovereign activity of God in choosing people, places, and timing in all things.
- The sovereign, abundant grace of God toward rebellious sinners always.
- The danger of hardening our hearts against God’s grace.
- The error of going through outward motions where our hearts are far from God.
While D. Thomas Lancaster in his Torah club study and Pastor Randy in his sermon series are covering identical material from Acts, the purpose and focus in each of their teachings are not at all the same. Lancaster is addressing the issue of whether or not the charges against Stephen were true; was he really speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple as he had been accused of? Pastor Randy, on the other hand, was using Stephen’s “sermon” (it was actually a legal defense and not a “sermon” as we understand the term in the church) as an illustration of God’s grace and mercy to sinners who repent and turn back to God.
Kind of like trying to compare apples and oranges.
Maybe that’s a good thing, because the Sunday school class I go to after services addresses (though tangentially) the content of the lesson from the Pastor. What if the Sunday school teacher asked if the charges against Stephen were true and I answered based on Lancaster?
Of course, the allegations were not true, but was there any basis at all to the charges?
Stephen presented a pro-Temple, pro-Torah apologetic which, in essence, affirmed his orthodoxy within normative Judaism. He cited the biblically based origin for the authority of Moses and the Torah, and he told the story of the origin of the Temple. He went on to make a case for Yeshua, declaring Him to be the “prophet like Moses” who, like Moses himself, suffered His people’s rejection. In the same way, he drew in the Temple theme as he pointed out that Israel’s historical compromises with paganism contrasted against the sanctity of the true Temple. By the end of his defense, he turned the tables around. The accused became the accuser. He claimed that just as the nation of Israel historically rejected Moses, broke the Torah, and compromised with idolatry, the Jewish leadership had committed a similar crime by rejecting the appointed Messiah. (Lancaster, pg 143)
Notice that Lancaster says that Stephen accused the “Jewish leadership” of rejecting the appointed Messiah, not the “Jewish people.” Since thousands upon thousands of Jews in Jerusalem had accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the weeks and months following Pentecost, it would be very difficult to say that the Jews en masse had rejected Jesus.
Lancaster says that the charges against Stephen were absolutely false, but we tend to hear a different message in Christianity (although no such message was presented in last week’s sermon at my church):
Commentators regard it…as an ironic twist that the so-called “false charges” were actually true. For example, F.F. Bruce (from Bruce’s book, “The Book of Acts,” 1988, pg 126) says, “They are called ‘false witnesses’ because, although their reports had a basis of truth, anyone who testifies against a spokesman of God is ipso facto a false witness.” Numerous Christian commentaries insist that, contrary to what Luke tells us, the witnesses were not really false nor were their allegations really lies. From a traditional Christian point of view, Stephen must have taught against the Temple with its obsolete sacrifices, against the Torah with its cancelled ceremonial laws, and against the customs, i.e., the traditions of men. (Lancaster, pg 142)
Even with the Masoretic traditions, though, many English readings of the Scripture can be divined from a single Hebrew text. Translation committees have to pick one. Many times readings are chosen to emphasize some Messianic prophecy which appears to point to Jesus Christ, while a Jewish translation committee might choose a different readings for the exact opposite reason. Both readings might be technically correct. However doctrinal presuppositions dictate which reading is chosen. In effect, then, when Christians have only an English Bible and no other tools, they are completely unable to interact with the Scripture – the original Greek and Hebrew texts. They are completely dependent on the work of the translator.
If our doctrinal presuppositions dictate how a passage in scripture is rendered from its original language into English (or any other modern language), the same can be true for how we interpret scripture. Even reading the ESV Bible’s translation of Acts 7:1-60, there’s nothing in the plain meaning of the text that indicates Stephen must have been speaking against Moses, the Torah, and the Temple. In fact, the vast majority of his defense reads like a simple history lesson, compressing the relevant sections of the Tanakh (Old Testament) into a few paragraphs. Stephen doesn’t appear to be denigrating the Jewish Torah and traditions but rather defending them. He only accuses the Sanhedrin of going against the Torah and teachings of Moses, in violation of what Jesus himself taught and defended.
You can see why I might be a little hesitant to speak up in Sunday school later today as I did last week.
It’s another Sunday (as you read this) and church services start at 9:30 this morning. I’ll be there again, and I’ll go to Sunday school again, and I don’t really know what I’m going to say or do. Hopefully, nothing stupid, but there are no guarantees. I’ve said and done stupid things before, even when I knew better. Telling what I understand to be “the truth” is not always defensible if I know in advance that the result will be upsetting or harmful to others. Even if I chose to speak, I would have to do so in a way that was not accusatory or offensive to others.
There is a major difference between being critical, and having a positive influence on others by saying things with compassion and true caring. When you sound critical, the person on the receiving end is likely to deny your words, which will be perceived as an attack. And then you won’t accomplish anything.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #634, Correct Without Being Critical”
So far, the only person at church who even knows this blog exists is Pastor Randy, and I don’t even know if he has visited here since our first meeting last week. Since it’s not likely anyone else at church knows I write these “morning meditations,” I’m more at liberty to express my thoughts and opinions here than I should be when in Sunday school.
Of course, this is only the second Sunday I will be back in church. I really need to learn to be more patient and not “shoot off my big mouth” just because the Sunday school teacher asks a question and no one answers. Silence isn’t always in invitation for me to “make noise” nor is it a reason to think that I can “correct” anyone else in their beliefs.
Maybe I should be paying more attention to what the Bible is telling me about what I need to do to make me a better person than what I think it says about making others better.