There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible
as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.
Polybius -- 205 BC - 118 BC
The Romans saw the Jews as contentious and trouble making. Their customs and laws were barbaric to the Roman sensibility. Even as a conquered people they held themselves with an air of superiority. They called themselves the ‘Chosen’ people, but most of their existence had been marked by conquest and subjugation. Yet, Gaius found some of them to be different. It was his job to keep the peace, and though some were ready to take up arms, a small but growing sect spoke of peace. Even so, they were always stirring up trouble with other Jews over belief in a man named Jesus.
As Gaius was led away by his own accusers, the sound of trouble in the street burdened his soul. Stoning was a horrible way to die, and another Jew, at the hands of his own people, was being cast out of the city, cursed by his brothers, and sentenced to death by bludgeoning, alone and isolated. As a centurion, Gaius was not to interfere with the customs of the local people, as long as it did not create a rebellion against Rome. As he walked, surrounded by guards himself, he remembered another time when accusations flew, and stones crushed the bones of a member of the Way.
“It amazes me that he is just a fisherman.” Stephen hung on every word that Peter spoke. “I am emboldened in my own opportunities to talk about Jesus every time I hear him preach.” Stephen was sitting next to his best friend Joseph. They had first heard Peter talk during the Pentecost celebration. It was an exhilarating moment; men and women were running from a building as if from a fire, all talking at the same time, to anyone who would listen. Everyone extraordinarily heard the message in the language of his or her birth.
Then Peter got everyone’s attention and began to speak of God’s plan for his chosen people Israel, how they rebelled and rejected his prophets, but in these last days he had sent his son to redeem them through his sacrifice on the cross. His sermon came to a glorious finish by describing Jesus’ resurrection and a call to believe. Stephen and Joseph were two of the first to declare their faith. Their decision, however, was not greeted so warmly at home.
Rushing into the house Stephen began telling his mother everything that had happened. “You wouldn’t believe Peter’s power and authority in preaching. He is definitely blessed by
His enthusiasm was tempered by his mother’s caution. “You watch yourself. You start believing in his words and you are liable to get kicked out of the synagogue.” She wasn’t as angry as she was concerned. Esther had heard the rumors about this Jesus.
“You say Peter saw Jesus rise from the dead? Well, the Rabbi at synagogue said it was all fabricated. The guards saw his disciples sneak the body away at night. Don’t be so easily swayed.”
“That doesn’t make sense, mother.” He didn’t mean to be disrespectful. “Roman discipline is harsh. If the soldiers allowed the body to be taken, they would be severely punished. There has to be more to the story. Maybe they were lying to protect themselves. Either way Peter’s words were compelling, Mother, and I believe.”
Esther almost collapsed at his words. If it weren’t for the dough she was kneading, her hands would have been flailing in the air, “You what? You heard this man once and you have become one of them? Don’t let your father hear you talk like this or he will throw you out of the house. I will not speak of this any more!” She turned her attention to making the bread and fell silent.
Stephen stood speechless; this wasn’t the response he had been expecting. He had hoped that she would want to hear the truth and follow Jesus as well. He slowly turned and walked out of the house. Wandering the streets, Stephen wanted to be alone with his thoughts. People were scurrying from here to there and he wondered if they understood the importance of being God’s chosen people. Did they realize that the Son of God had been crucified for them and rose again in power? Did they care that the rituals they practiced everyday were empty shadows of better things? He found himself in a small square, the cobbled streets circled by several businesses and houses. People were milling around and moving in and out of the buildings. In that moment, Stephen felt an overwhelming presence, a compulsion to stand straight and speak out, and the words began to flow.
“Can I have your attention, everyone, can I have your attention.” It was exhilarating, yet he was fearful. “My brothers and sisters, I am Stephen bar Jonas, and I have grown up in your midst.”
People stopped and turned.
“We have been celebrating Shavuot, the festival of Weeks. As is our custom we remember the giving of the Torah, to Moses, on Mount Sinai. The Passover reminds us of being delivered from the bondage of Egypt; the Torah freed us from the bondage of idolatry and immorality. I am here today to tell you that they were illustrations of greater freedom.”
It wasn’t unusual for people to retell the story of the Exodus, but it was usually at home, in synagogue, or in the Temple. This impromptu preaching attracted their attention, and though many were skeptical of this young preacher, some seemed genuinely interested. It was when he began to say, “This man Jesus, who you have heard and seen did many wonders and signs before you,” that some became antagonistic.
“He was a heretic!”
“Nothing but a common criminal!”
“Wasn’t he crucified for his blaspheme?"
Waving their arms and trying to censor his remarks, people kept interrupting. Others wanted to hear what he had to say and joined the chorus. “Let him talk, he has not said anything that isn’t true.”
With this encouragement, Stephen continued to tell the story just as he remembered Peter speaking. He felt emboldened and confident as he spoke, not because he was good with words, but because the Spirit of God had come upon him. In the end some left, but others stood around him asking him questions, and a few believed. He immediately took them to the apostles who were staying in a room in the city.
Stephen and his family lived in the poor section of Jerusalem, just south of the Temple, along the Tyropoean Valley. It was near there, just west of the Gilhaon Springs, that the disciples gathered. The place had special significance in the lives of the followers of Jesus. In this room, Jesus celebrated Passover with them, and it was here that the Spirit of God came on them the first day that Stephen heard Peter preach. People were meandering in and out, a constant flow of activity. Thousands of people had responded to Peter’s preaching and came to hear more instruction from one of Jesus’ closest followers. Leading his small group of converts, Stephen walked into the large room. There was ample space to accommodate the flow of people, with cushions lining the walls and tables toward the center. Peter, James, and John were scattered in different places teaching and talking with the people who came.
It was Thaddeus who greeted them. “Shalom, peace in the name of Jesus.” He looked into each person’s face and offered his hand in fellowship. “And how can I help you men today?” The warm welcome put both Stephen and his companions at ease. Each of them felt a sense of anticipation. They weren’t sure what to expect as they came to explore more of their new faith.
“My name is Stephen, and I heard Peter speak on the day of Shavuot. It was that day I believed in Jesus as Messiah. I have shared that good news with these men and they too have believed. I have brought them here to learn more about the Messiah.” He was nervous and spoke quickly.”
“It is our privilege to teach all who will listen. Come join this group, as my brother John relates some of our more intimate experiences with Jesus.” Thaddeus led them along the west wall and the men sat outside the circle as John continued his story. Stephen, however, as politely as possible, made space for himself toward the front. He wanted to be as close as he could, and learn as much as possible from John.
Stephen’s enthusiasm didn’t go unnoticed. Thaddeus shared with his brothers how this young man had repeated Peter’s Shavuot sermon, and the response of those around. It was obvious that the Spirit of God was upon him, and they would keep an eye on this young man. As evening came, the crowd thinned and almost all were gone. Stephen realized that he too must leave. He didn’t want to go; he knew the reception at home would be cold. He had told Thaddeus how his mother responded, and was encouraged to return home and submit to her authority as a loving son and return when he could. His steps home were much slower than his steps to the upper room. When he reached the doorpost he hesitated, took a deep breath, and walked through the door.
“It is late,” his mother said. His father sat in a chair next to a small table in the corner of the room. “Where have you been?”
“I was …” He wasn’t sure what to say. He didn’t want to create a conflict, but he didn’t want to lie either. “The truth shall set you free” is what Jesus said, and though he was speaking about himself, it seemed appropriate at the time. “I was with the followers of Jesus.” Stephen’s mother looked awkwardly over at her husband.
Stephen’s father was a devout man who had heard Jesus speak, and though he was not a follower, he was not unsympathetic. “Come, sit next to me, and tell me what you have heard.”
For the rest of the evening Stephen sat with his parents telling them the stories, message, and power of Jesus. He was animated and excited, his arms flailing and the pitch of his voice rising and falling for emphasis. It wasn’t as if he had never heard these things before. One couldn’t live in Jerusalem and not know about this wandering preacher who upset the High Priest and called into question the authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. In fact, his father had seen and heard more than Stephen. But it was the child-like faith of this young man that captivated the listeners, and when the last story was told for the evening his father said, “Stephen, it is the hope of all Israel that the Messiah would come and deliver us from the oppression of Rome, to establish once again the glory of the Temple. If this man Jesus is alive, then when will he do this thing, huh? It is all very interesting, but don’t get your hopes up too high, and don’t think that I will convert. I will hold to the Law and Prophets; in them is God’s will. Come, it is time for us all to sleep.” He got up, patted Stephen’s head as he did when he was a child, and went to bed.
Every opportunity that Stephen had to break away from his duties at home, he made his way to the upper room. The more he learned the more confident he felt in sharing the story of Jesus. His father and mother never spoke again about his activities, and though they didn’t believe, they didn’t stand in his way, as long he continued to keep Sabbath and the Law. They felt he must find his own path, and that in the end truth would win.
Stephen had made a name for himself among the people of the Way. He was known for his compassion, preaching, and filling of the Spirit. With all the people coming to faith in Jesus, those who came from other cities and countries needed to be fed and housed. Fellow converts were selling excess property to give to the needs of the community. But there arose a conflict between some of the Jewish believers and the Hellenistic believers. They felt that the division of food was unequal, a larger share going to the Jewish converts. All the bickering and fighting was a poor testimony of Jesus’ love, and wore on the eleven disciples who tried to maintain order, care, and give attention to the prayer and the teaching of God’s word. After an extensive time of prayer, they gave instruction to the community of believers to select seven men, filled with the Holy Spirit, who would be responsible for the care and feeding of the people. This pleased the community so much that they set out to choose from among themselves seven men.
Always looking for an opportunity to serve, Stephen was helping a family, who had recently believed in Jesus, to get settled into the community. He was making sure that they understood how the community worked and how they all contributed to its support. A light touch on his shoulder got his attention. “Stephen …” It was Thaddeus. “When you are finished, could you join us in the upper room?”
“Yes, certainly, let me just take care of a few more things and I will be right with you.” His heart was pumping so hard he thought it was going to burst from his chest. He quickly completed his task and went with Thaddeus. When they arrived at the upper room other men were there as well, men he knew and had worked with to care for the believers. There was Philip and Prochorus, Nicanor, Tomon, Parmenas, and Nicklaus from Antioch. With them were representatives of different groups among the congregation of believers. Stephen wasn’t sure what to think; maybe he had done something wrong and was in trouble.
“The congregation of believers has chosen,” Peter said. “After prayer and consideration you men have proven yourselves to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and of good repute. You have been selected out of all of our community to serve in our place and to provide for the needs of the people. If you are willing to accept this honor we will consecrate it with prayer.” Peter waited for a response from each of the individuals. Of all of them Stephen was the youngest, and as each gave their assent the pressure to say yes became greater. Stephen didn’t consider himself worthy of such a privilege, but how could he turn down a request from the disciples. When it came time for him to respond he opened his mouth and, with out a sound, mouthed yes. There was a little laughter, but then Peter and the disciples gathered around the group, laying hands on their heads and praying for God’s blessing on their leadership. And God’s blessing did come: their numbers multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, so much so that even some priests were being converted.
Stephen rose in prominence, not that he sought acclaim, but God’s Spirit rested on him, not only in his care for the community but in his preaching and in his ability to perform signs and wonders. The Jews saw him and were amazed and many believed his testimony as a result. This did not settle well with all the Jews, especially those from the synagogue of the Freedmen, which included Cyrenians and Alexandrians, as well as some from Cilicia and Asia. They came and argued with Stephen.
Gaius and the troops of the Roman army were bivouacked at Fort Antonia, built by the great king Herod. It lay just north of the Temple and was 490 feet east to west and 260 feet north to south. Each wall was seventy feet high, and at its corner towered a 75-foot square turret. It had been said that the fortress could house 5,000 soldiers, but since Gaius had been stationed no more than 500 men stayed in its garrison. On occasion an influx of soldiers arrived when a festival called for reinforcements. If any real trouble occurred, soldiers from the Tenth Legion in Caesarea could be quickly dispatched.
Gaius’ day began early with paperwork, and how he hated paper work. Yet, reports had to be written, officers informed, and discipline maintained. Outside the walls of Jerusalem a virtual city had been formed consisting of support personnel for the troops. They were farmers and craftsmen, all brought along to serve the needs of the army. And though enlisted men were not allowed to marry, it was not uncommon for solders to have substitute wives, women who acted in the place of wives without matrimony. They took care of their “husbands.”
He was going through the patrol rotations of the day. As centurion, he commanded 80 soldiers and junior non-commissioned officers and though not obligated to go on patrol, he made a habit of accompanying his men on occasion. He believed that a good leader understood the dangers his men faced. Today he scheduled himself to accompany a small contingent of ten men on patrol in the south side of the Temple. As he walked through the fortress handing out assignments, he stopped and spoke to many of his men. He was different than the other centurions, but it hadn’t always been that way; something had changed over the past couple of years. He was still a hard commander, but he was just, fair, and even forgiving. His men often thought it would get him into trouble.
Dishes were washed, gear stowed, armor cleaned and donned, and the patrol was ready to go. They left through the south entrance of the fort, and established a semi-tight formation. The streets were not very wide and they needed room to maneuver. Jewish youths often threw rocks from the tops of homes; less common were zealots who would ambush a patrol. Often or not, Gaius and his men were ever vigilant. He would rather show force than use it, and he definitely didn’t want to take a life unless necessary, an unusual habit for a Roman centurion. Over the past decade, however, he had seen his share of death, and though he could dispatch a life with ease in the cause of Rome, his new faith caused him to struggle with its necessity.
The patrol hadn’t gone far that morning when a disturbance erupted in front of them. A young man was surrounded by a group of his elders bent on arguing about something. The army’s instructions were to allow locals freedom to interact and dispense justice in their own way, limited of course by certain Roman laws. Gaius brought the patrol to a slow pace until they came to within 100 feet of the crowd. He told his men to hold their position until he could assess the situation.
“This man speaks against Moses and against God!” He said walking around wildly waving his arms. “Will we stand by and let him speak such sacrilege? He leads the people astray.”
“Let him talk,” another man yelled.
“Shall we let him speak against the holy place and the law?” another man intoned. “Then we will be like him, by giving our assent. Are you with him? Do you speak against the Law of Moses as well?”
The intimidating words quieted those who might have supported the young man.
“Grab him, we will take him to the Council. Let them be the judge.”
The surrounding crowds laid hold of Stephen and forced him toward the Temple buildings where the Sanhedrin sat in judgment.
“What are your orders sir, should we disperse the crowd?” One of his soldiers was ready for action, but this was an internal matter. He might not like the tone or direction this might take; yet he was not willing to risk a conflict over it. He would keep a watch on the situation.
“No,” he responded. “Cornelius and Arius, you follow the crowd from a distance; if they move to anything more than talk, come get me. Don’t get involved.”
The two soldiers broke formation and followed the mob. Gaius continued his patrol.
The power brokers of Israel sat in the court of the Sanhedrin. Seventy-one men held in their hands the fate of any who stood before them. Today their victim was Stephen, though his presence was not unexpected. A semi-circle of chairs encircled the accused and accusers who were brought to stand in the middle. There had to be at least two accusers for a case to be brought before the Sanhedrin, and it wasn’t difficult to find willing accomplices. The nasi of the court sat in the middle of the semi-circle, and to his right the av be din motioned the accusers to bring forth their case. Stephen’s fame was not lost on the Sanhedrin. In fact, this little charade had been orchestrated to intimidate the Jewish people from following the people of the Way.
“He performs magic, and says that Jesus, the Nazarene, will destroy this place and change the customs of the people.” The council announced their dismay by beating their chests and shouting curses at Stephen.
“It is true,” said the second witness. “I too have witnessed and heard these things. He says that this Jesus is greater than our Father Abraham, and that the Law has no place for the Jews.” The clamor grew, the council shouting louder than the accusers. The pandemonium lasted for three minutes until the nasi stood and fixed his eyes on the accused.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
As they set their gaze upon him, the whole Council saw his face like the face of an angel.
“Are these things so?” the nasi yelled, trying to break his gaze.
“Hear me, brethren and fathers.” Always respectful, Stephen laid before them the history of their people. He reminded them of Abraham and the patriarchs: how they sold their brother Joseph into slavery and were ultimately delivered from Egypt, Moses and the Law along with the bickering and complaining of the people, how Aaron built the golden calf, how God instituted the law, and how David found favor in His sight. He described the Temple of Solomon, and retold them of how the Most High did not dwell there. The council was unmoved by his presentation. They could agree with the history lesson laid before them, but it was the change in tone and words that filled them with rage.
“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit: you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?” When they heard this, they were cut to the quick and began gnashing their teeth at him, yelling at him curses and accusations of blasphemy.
When the council began to heat up, the soldiers went and reported what they had seen and heard. Gaius immediately went to the court of the Sanhedrin, but stayed just outside. It was unusual for a Roman to be there, and his presence could cause an uprising in itself. Gaius had ordered his men to stand guard as he tried to ascertain the situation. He had no intention of entering but stood in the shadows at such an angle as to see what was happening inside. When the clamor had reached what he thought was its peak the most amazing thing happened. Stephen gazed intently to heaven and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” The council members were inextricably drawn to the ceiling as they followed his gaze, but their confused looks and muttering showed they saw nothing. But what Gaius saw was extraordinary: he saw heaven open and the glory of God! He had such small faith, small understanding of Jesus, and yet, in this moment he shared in something his tongue could not express.
The clamor of the crowd grew even louder than he thought possible. Gaius quickly withdrew back to the patrol. They questioned him about what he had seen, but he dismissed them and led them away. He could not escape. Behind him the council had grabbed hold of the young man and dragged him outside the city. He commanded his patrol to follow, maintaining order if necessary, but not to interfere.
When they exited the gates of the city, the crowd threw Stephen to the ground, shouting curses and gesturing threateningly. When all the council had arrived they began to remove their cloaks, laying them at the feet of a young Pharisee. He calmly and smugly watched as the frenzied crowd picked up stones and hurled them at the young man. Stephen crumpled to the ground, but the only thing he said was, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Having said this, he drew his last breath and died.