Handling the Evangelistic Accounts in Acts More Accurately: Part III

May 13, 2011

In order to assess properly the relevance of an account in Acts for our own evangelism, we must carefully consider various aspects of the account that many people often overlook. Stephen’s speech (Acts 7) is a good example of a passage that illustrates some overlooked aspects that need to be handled more accurately.

Through the activities of certain people of a synagogue who were unable to resist his ministry (6:9-10), Stephen was accosted and brought before the Jewish council (6:11-12). False witnesses set up by his enemies then testified against him (6:13-14).

The high priest challenged him concerning the testimony borne by them (7:1). Luke records at length Stephen’s answer to the high priest (7:2-53) followed by the people’s very hostile response (7:54), further testimony by Stephen (7:55-56), and his martyrdom (7:57-60).

In the 56 verses of the testimony by Stephen that Luke records, we do not read of his explicitly testifying to the resurrection of Jesus. How should we understand the significance of his seeming lack of testimony to this key truth?

First, we should note that Stephen’s speech, strictly speaking, is not an evangelistic message as much as it is a defense speech.

Second, in keeping with what I argued in Parts I and II of this series, we must keep in mind that we cannot be certain that Luke has given us an exhaustive account of what Stephen did testify. This uncertainty should cause us to be cautious in what we dogmatically say about what he did not testify.

Third, it is very important for us to note specifically to whom Stephen spoke on this occasion. Some of those whose actions resulted in Stephen’s arrest and being brought to the council were people who had been unable to resist his ministry to them (6:9-10). Luke, however, does not tell us anything about what those people had already heard from Stephen.

Based on what we read about the apostolic testimony in all the preceding evangelistic accounts in Acts 2-5, we have every reason to believe that his testimony similarly included extensive witness to the resurrection of Jesus (cf. 1:22). It is, therefore, almost certain that they had already received prior testimony to the Resurrection from Stephen himself before his speech to the council.

Furthermore, concerning not just these people from the synagogue, but also the others present at this occasion (the men whom the synagogue people suborned [6:11]; the people, the elders, and the scribes [6:12]; the false witnesses [6:13]), an earlier statement by Luke must also be taken into account.

In Acts 5, Luke recorded that the high priest had asked the apostles when they had been brought before the Council, “Saying, ‘Did we not straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us'” (5:27-28). Here, Luke’s record of the high priest’s charge against the apostles reveals that the high priest knew that the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their doctrine, which preeminently included testimony to the Resurrection (cf. 1:22).

Based on the high priest’s statement, therefore, we are justified in holding that the people present when Stephen gave his speech had already received prior testimony to the Resurrection. In fact, we know that the Jewish “rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high priest, and Caiphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest” (4:5-7) did receive such testimony (4:10). We also know that “the captain with the officers” (5:26) and the Council and the high priest did receive such testimony (5:30).

Thus, even if Stephen had not borne any testimony to the Resurrection in his speech, which we cannot be certain of, his omission would have been before people who already had received testimony to the Resurrection. His omission, then, would not at all be exemplary for us in what we should do with first-time hearers in our evangelism.

The preceding analysis of Stephen’s supposed omission of testimony to the Resurrection in Acts 7 shows that we cannot be certain that he in fact did not bear such testimony. Furthermore, even if he had omitted such testimony in that speech, he would have done so with people who already had heard about the Resurrection.

For these reasons, we should not view Acts 7 as an account that teaches us that testimony to the Resurrection is sometimes optional in our evangelism with first-time hearers. At most, it shows that, if we do choose to omit such testimony, it should only be with hostile people whom we know have already received that testimony beforehand.

Rajesh

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