Stephen Brought Before a Council Part 4 of 6
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
When these religious leaders could not answer Stephen, they resorted to tactics often employed by people bested in an argument: When you cannot out-argue an individual, you usually try to out-shout him. When he still won't be silenced you have to try other tactics, as these did. They set about to charge him officially before the court, and to find false witnesses to testify against him that he had blasphemed Moses and God. It is interesting to me that they put Moses first here, making him more important than God. They stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they seized Stephen and brought him before the council, where the false witnesses, who were bribed by members of the council, claimed that they heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses —their great and divinely-commissioned lawgiver; and against God — The great author of that law which Moses delivered by His command. They were right in supposing that they who blasphemed Moses, if they meant the writings of Moses, which were given by inspiration of God, blasphemed God himself.
They that speak reproachfully of the Scriptures, and ridicule them, reflect badly upon God himself, and do a great injustice to Him. But did Stephen blaspheme Moses? By no means; he was far from it. Christ and the preachers of His Gospel never said anything that looked like blaspheming Moses; they always quoted his writings with respect; made reference to them, and said nothing other than what Moses foretold would happen. Stephen, therefore, was very unjustly indicted for blaspheming Moses. This begs the question, “How did Luke know what the opponents of Stephen secretly induced men to say?” Possibly, it was because a man named Saul of Tarsus was among the opponents, because some of them were from Paul’s home region of Cilicia. Saul (who became known as Paul the apostle) may have told Luke about this incident.
“On such terms,” says Baxter, “we dispute with malignant men: when they cannot resist the truth, they suborn men to swear to false accusations. And it is next to a miracle of Providence, that no greater number of religious persons have been murdered in the world, by the way of perjury and pretense of law, when so many thousands hate them, who make no conscience of false oaths.”
12 And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council,
“They stirred up the people” by means of the false reports spread by the men whom they suborned (bribed), and by working upon the feelings of the people and the elders and scribes, these leaders of the synagogues so excited them that they obtained permission to arrest Stephen and bring him before the Sanhedrim. Up till now, the gospel seemed to enjoy great popular favor. It was necessary, then, to arouse the hostility of the common people. This could be done by perversion of what was preached. The Pharisees, who were apparently neutral since Pentecost until now, were aroused by Stephen's attack on legalism. Judaism was the dominant religion among the Jews. The man who dared to stand without its portals and preach Christ was immediately a target for the darts of Jewish jealousy and hatred. The common people were easily agitated, and soon incensed and provoked, when at any time it was suggested to them that the rituals and ceremonies of the Law of Moses were neglected or treated with contempt “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him” (Acts 21:27).
By “they” is meant the Libertines, etc. (see verse 9), mentioned before. “They stirred up the people”—raised a mob to demonstrate against Stephen; and, to assist, arouse, and lead the mob, they got the elders and scribes, who by doing so, made themselves one with the vilest of whom they collected; and then, altogether, without the benefit of law or concern for justice, rushed on the good man, seized him, and brought him to the council who, though they sat in the seat of judgment, were ready to commit an evil act.
The rapid activity implied by the words “Came upon… caught… brought” suggest taking him by surprise and hurrying him by force into the presence of the Sanhedrim (“council”). Note, seized is probably better than caught; seized with violence is better yet. “And brought him to the council,” meaning the great Sanhedrim, then meeting at Jerusalem, to whom belonged the right to judge blasphemy.
There is no length to which evil men will go to discount the children of God. Even today, “religious” people lend themselves to Satan to speak against the ministers of Christ. Let a man, like Stephen, dare to stand outside the regular church traditions and procedures, and everywhere "the leaders" will malign him, and misrepresent him; reporting things that are entirely contrary to what is truly said, or done. Men who reject the Christian religion, and have power, are apt to oppose those who embrace it, especially if they are zealous and successful in its proclamation. They sometimes contend that the interests of the Church require this; and members of the clergy, clothed with secular authority, and destitute of the spirit of Christ, are often among the most fierce and malignant of persecutors.
Let no man think that he who lives godly in Christ Jesus shall escape some such conflict as that which met Stephen. The man who has no opposition, is the man who is silver-tongued and shallow; the man who goes along with those who are walking contrary to the Word of God.
13 And set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law:
And set up false witnesses.
Someone may raise the question, “Why are these persons called “false” witnesses, since it is thought by many that they just reported the “words” of Stephen?” It may be said in reply that if they did report only his “words”; if Stephen had actually said what they insisted he did, then he was guilty of blasphemy, and guilty as charged. These false witnesses were paid for their testimony and told what to say by the leaders of the Synagogues, and the result was that they perverted his meaning. They accused him of “blasphemy”; that is, of speaking slanderous, defamatory, and reproachful words against Moses and against God. The charges were baseless, because there was no evidence that Stephen had spoken in such a manner, or had ever considered saying anything derogatory about Moses. What Stephen had said in the mildest manner, while making his argument that Jesus was the Messiah might easily be perverted by the paid liars into what in “their view” amounted to blasphemy. So what was it that they claimed to have heard Stephen say that was so blasphemous? We are told in the next verse: “For we have heard him (Stephen) say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place (the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem), and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” But there is no evidence whatsoever that Stephen had ever used these words on any occasion, and it is altogether improbable that he ever did, for the following reasons:
1. Jesus never said that He would destroy the Temple, which, incidentally, was what the false witnesses at Jesus’ trial claimed they heard Him say “and declared, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days’” (Matt. 26.61).; and now they are using the same tactics against Stephen. But the truth of the matter is that Jesus uniformly taught that it would be done by the “Gentiles.” The probability therefore is, that the whole testimony was “false,” and was cleverly invented to produce the utmost rage among the people, and yet, it was at the same time plausible enough to be easily believed, since, on this point the Jews were particularly sensitive; and it is clear that they had some expectations that the Messiah would produce changes of some kind; which may have from this prophecy by Daniel—“After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with many for one 'seven.' In the middle of the 'seven', he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him" (Dan. 9:26-27). Later on, the same charge was brought against Paul, which he promptly denied “Then Paul made his defense: "I have done nothing wrong against the law of the Jews or against the temple or against Caesar" (Acts 25:8).. Now we know that the same charge was made against Jesus, Stephen, and Paul.
2. They didn’t have any real evidence to present against Steven, but they were determined not make the same mistake they made at the trial of Jesus, where they had to go out and seek witnesses at the last minute. This time they were ready; they already had their witnesses, and they were instructed to make an oath that they had heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11)—against this holy place and the law (Acts 6:13); because they heard him say what Jesus would do to their Temple and their customs (Acts 6:14). It is probably true that Stephen had said something similar to that and yet those who testified against him are called false witnesses, because, though there was some truth in their testimony, yet they put a wrong and malicious construction upon what he had said, and perverted it.