Notes on Prayer: Acts 6:1-6; 7:59

Acts 6:1-6; 7:59

The next references to prayer in the book of Acts occur in the Stephen narrative (chaps. 6-7). Actually, this narrative block both begins and concludes with a prayer. Stephen is established through the introductory narrative in 6:1-6, which briefly narrates a practical conflict that emerged in the early Jerusalem Community—a conflict that necessitated an expansion of the leadership of the Community.

Implicit throughout the early chapters (1-5) is the leadership of the circle of Twelve, the importance of which was made clear in the opening narratives (esp. 1:15-26, cf. the prior study on 1:24). Now, due to the difficulties in providing food to all the members of the Community, it was deemed necessary to create a division of labor: the group of Twelve would continue to focus entirely on the preaching ministry, while an additional group (of seven) would take the leadership over the practical matters of providing food, etc.

However, the language used in the narrative makes clear that this was not simply a menial task: it genuinely represented an important leadership position in the Community. The men chosen were to be “full of (the) Spirit and wisdom” (plh/rh$ pneu/mato$ kai\ sofi/a$), as well as being persons for whom the rest of the Community could give witness (vb marture/w) regarding their character and ability. Once the seven men were chosen, the apostles prayed (vb proseuxe/w) and laid their hands on them (v. 4). The laying on of hands was a ritual gesture with ancient roots in Near Eastern tradition. It came to be a fundamental component of early Christian ritual within the Community, emphasizing both the identity of a person as part of the Community, as well as the unity and solidarity of the Community itself. It thus has certain aspects in common with the act of prayer.

Stephen is singled out in the narrative as a man “full of trust and (the) holy Spirit” (v. 5). It is again clear that the group of seven were leading ministers in their own right, whose abilities and gifts for ministry were not limited to the practical tasks of feeding the Community. We see how this is narrated in verse 8, where it is stated that Stephen “…full of (the) favor and power (of God), did wonders and great signs among the people”. He also taught and preached the Gospel message, much as the Twelve did. The distinction between the Seven and the Twelve only related to their primary roles within the Community. In all other respects, they were called equally (along with other believers) to act as missionaries, proclaiming the Gospel message to the people in Jerusalem.

Stephen’s preaching ministry brought him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This is one of three such conflict-episodes narrated in the early chapters of Acts (chaps. 3-4; 5:12-42; and here in 6:8-8:1). The prayer of the Community in 4:23-31 (cf. the previous study) was focused specifically on this rising conflict and opposition to the Gospel. The request was made to God for boldness (parrhsi/a) to continue to proclaim the message even in the face of such opposition (v. 29). An additional request was for God to continue working miracles through them (v. 30). In response to their prayer, the believers were collectively filled again with the Spirit, and, through this empowerment by the Spirit, “spoke the account of God with outspokenness [parrhsi/a]” (v. 31).

All of this relates specifically to the Stephen narrative. The boldness and power with which he preaches is an extension of the episode in 4:23-31, and, in its own way, a fulfillment of the promise spoken by Jesus in his teaching on prayer in Luke 11 (v. 13). Standing before the Council (Sanhedrin), vv. 12-14ff, Stephen delivers a long sermon-speech in the form of a summary of Israelite history. The Spirit-inspired character of the speech is suggested by the description of him in v. 15. The historical summary builds upon a number of important early Christian themes (cf. Parts 9-12 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”), which involve the fundamental issue of the religious identity of believers as the people of God. Those who reject Jesus (as the Messiah) fulfill the type-pattern of those Israelites of the Exodus who rebelled against Moses and perished in the desert. This is at the heart of the conflict-episodes in Acts: the choice of Israelites and Jews, whether they will accept or reject Jesus as the Messiah.

The author frames the Sanhedrin interrogation of Stephen so that it evokes the earlier scene (in the Gospel) of Jesus before the Council. Indeed, of the three major conflict-episodes, it is the Stephen narrative which most clearly follows the pattern of Jesus’ Passion. The parallels (some more precise than others) may be outlined as follows:

    • Stephen was “full of faith/trust and the Holy Spirit” and “full of the favor (of God) and power” (Acts 6:5, 8)
      —Jesus likewise, at the beginning of his ministry (Lk 4:1), was said to be “full of the Holy Spirit”; cf. also Lk 4:14 and Lk 1:15, 17; 2:40.
    • Stephen did “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8)
      —Cf. especially the notice of Jesus’ miracles in Acts 2:22
    • It is stated that Stephen’s opponents “did not have strength to stand against the wisdom and the Spirit in which he spoke” (Acts 6:10)
      —Cf. Luke 20:26, etc; 21:15
    • The accusation of blasphemy (i.e. insult/slander against God) (Acts 6:11)
      —The declaration of the High Priest (Mark 14:64 par), implied in Lk 22:71
    • Stephen’s opponents “stirred together” the crowds etc. against him (Acts 6:12)
      —The Jewish authorities “shook up” the crowds against Jesus (Mark 15:11, not in Luke)
    • “They seized him and led him into the Sanhedrin” (Acts 6:12b)
      —Cf. Luke 22:52, 54, 66; 23:1, also the specific mention of “Elders and Scribes” (Lk 22:66)
    • False witnesses give testimony, involving the Temple (Acts 6:13)
      —False witnesses against Jesus rel. to the “Temple-saying” (Mark 14:57-59 par, not in Luke)
    • The claim that Jesus would destroy the Temple (Acts 6:14)
    • Stephen stands in the middle of the Council (cf. Luke 22:66)
    • The question by the High Priest regarding the truth of the accusations (Acts 7:1)
      —The specific question in Mark 14:60 par (not in Luke); cf. also Mk 14:61 par; Lk 22:67, 70
    • Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:55-56)
      —Jesus’ answer to the Council regarding the Son of Man (Lk 22:69 par; in Matt/Mark, seeing the Son of Man)
    • The reaction of the Council (including tearing their garments) (Acts 7:52; Mark 14:63-64 par, cf. Lk 22:71)
    • Stephen is taken outside of the city to be put to death (Acts 7:58, cf. Lk 23:26, 33)
    • Stephen’s dying words: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
      —Jesus’ dying words: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
    • Stephen asks God to forgive those putting him to death: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
      —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34 [not in some MSS])
    • After Stephen’s death “there came to be… a great persecution upon the Church” (Acts 8:1)
      —After Jesus’ death “there came to be darkness upon the whole land” (Luke 23:44)

From a narrative standpoint, these parallels illustrate vividly the disciple following in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the point of death (Lk 5:11, 27-28; 9:23, 57-62; 18:22, 28; 21:12-19; 22:39, 54; 23:27, 49 pars; cf. also Mk 10:38-40, etc).

Stephen’s dying words take the form of a prayer to God. This prayer is two-fold; let us consider it in terms of the parallel with Jesus’ death (cf. the outline above):

    • Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59)
      —Jesus: “Father, into your hands I place [i.e. give] along my spirit” (Lk 23:46)
    • Stephen: “Do not hold up this sin against them” (Acts 7:60)
      —Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the cross (Lk 23:34)

The first part of the prayer is on behalf of Stephen’s own soul; the second part is on behalf of those people responsible for putting him to death. Interestingly, the famous saying by Jesus on the cross is not found in a number of key manuscripts, and is considered to be an interpolation (a secondary addition) by many scholars. The Jesus-Stephen parallel could serve as an argument in favor of the authenticity of the verse; the parallels are certainly stronger if the cross-saying is included.

Even if the saying in Lk 23:34 is not part of the original text, Stephen’s prayer is fully in accord with Jesus’ teaching on prayer. In particular, we may note Jesus’ teaching regarding the love that must be shown by his disciples toward their enemies (Lk 6:27-36 par)—which includes praying for those who make false accusations against them (v. 28). Stephen’s faithfulness to Christ is illustrated over the full scope of the narrative—a narrative that begins with prayer and ends with prayer.

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