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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Story of Stephen


Our group will be meeting to look at the story of Stephen soon - a familiar enough tale - so here are the questions we'll be looking at:
 
The last study ended with a group of deacons being chosen. Today we’re going to follow what happened to one of them, but before we start, what do you remember of the story of Stephen?

1.       What kind of person is Stephen?
a.       Read Act 6:1,5. Stephen either is a Hellenist, or is approved by them. But what are Hellenists?

b.      The Hellenists were centered in Alexandria, viewed with some suspicion in Jerusalem for blending with non-Jewish culture; prominent in Tarsus and Antioch; famous for producing the Septuagint, the phrase “circumcision of the heart,” and some apocryphal books;  disappeared in 2nd century, perhaps absorbed into Christianity. Are there Christian groups that we view with suspicion; are there groups we accuse of blending faith too closely with culture? Do we treat them differently?

c.       Read Acts 6:5-8 What does this tell us about Stephen? And what does it tell us about deacons (as opposed to apostles)?

2.       Who opposed Stephen?
a.       Read Acts 6:9-10 Do we know what the Synagogue of Freedmen was? Freedmen usually refers to freed slaves. Why might freed Hellenist slaves be particularly opposed to Stephen?

b.      What groups might easily take offense at Christian teaching and oppose our faith unfairly?

c.       What do people in power usually do when they can’t win an argument? And how do we play into their hands when they’re resisting the message of faith?

3.       What witnesses does the opposition call?
a.       Read Acts 6:11-12 Does calling something blasphemous make it so?

b.      Read Acts 6:13-14 In what sense are these false witnesses?

c.       Read Acts 6:15-7:1 What is Stephen’s position now? Should he defend himself, defend his friends, or defend his faith? And how are these different?

4.       Stephen’s sermon is one of the longest in the New Testament. Before you read it, can you imagine how you would defend your beliefs? If your life depended on it, would you start with personal experience or historical fact? What is Stephen doing?

a.       The calling of God’s people
                                                                                        i.      Read Acts 7:2-4 How does Stephen address his attackers? How important is it to start from what we have in common when talking to unbelievers? (And hence, how important is it to start by having something in common?)

                                                                                       ii.      Why might it be important that Stephen starts his story with God speaking in Mesopotamia?

b.      Dispersion – into Egypt
                                                                                        i.       Read Acts 7:5-8 Why does Stephen spend so much time talking about Egypt? (Read Genesis 15:14, Exodus 3:12) Has another 400 years passed at the time Stephen is speaking?

                                                                                       ii.      Read Acts 7:9-16 Is Stephen inviting comparison with Joseph? Does he get all his facts right? And does it matter? (Read Exodus 1:5, Genesis 50:13 How can we distinguish between “mistakes” that matter and ones that don’t?)

c.       A second calling – out of Egypt
                                                                                        i.      Read Acts 7:17-22 What characteristics of Moses does Stephen emphasize? Why might these be important?

                                                                                       ii.      Read Acts 7:23-29 What characteristic of Moses does he emphasize now, and why?

                                                                                     iii.      Read Acts 7:30-34 How does Stephen remind his listeners, again, that the Temple is not the only place God speaks, and its priests are not the only ones to hear his voice. Do our churches or denominations ever need to hear this message? Have they in history?

                                                                                     iv.      Read Acts 7:35-37 How does he invite comparison between Jesus and Moses?

d.      Dispersion – through the wilderness
                                                                                        i.      Read Acts 7:38-42 Was it an angel or God himself who met Moses on the mountain? Compare Acts 7:41-42 and Amos 5:25-27 What is Stephen emphasizing?

                                                                                       ii.      Read Acts 7:44-47 Are Stephen’s listeners likely to have disagreed with anything so far? What do you think they’re feeling about Stephen at this point?

e.      A third calling – to Jesus
                                                                                        i.      Read Acts 7:48-50 and Isaiah 66:1-2 What message does this convey?

                                                                                       ii.      Read Acts 7:51-53 What message does this convey? Is Stephen deliberately provocative, or is he following God’s plan?

                                                                                     iii.      I was taught as a child that “I” killed Jesus – my sins were the nails in his hands and feet; my doubts caused his agony; and if nobody else would be saved, he would have gone through it all for me. In what sense might personal guilt lead to personal thanksgiving and commitment?

5.       Stephen’s death
a.       I remember that Stephen saw a vision of heaven. Without looking, did you remember rightly when he saw the vision?

b.      Read Acts 7:54-60 A personal reminder of guilt doesn’t always lead to redemption. What else might it provoke?

c.       Unfair punishment often leads to anger and condemnation. What response does Stephen give?

d.      How good are we at not blaming others, or at asking God not to blame them?

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