As a response to the growing persecution globally of the Christian faith and followers of Christ, I have felt led to write a short series on Christian Martyrdom. The first martyr that I will focus on in this post is Stephen, who is widely accepted to be the first martyr of the Christian faith. Remember, I am not a theologian and this is not meant to be a piece of academic prose. I am merely a curious child of the Living God, eager to learn more about those that have gone before me and were led to death for being followers of Jesus Christ. To see my introduction to this series – visit ‘Reflecting on Christian Martyrdom #1’. I have written some of my own personal reflections in bold italics throughout.
Who Was Stephen?
Stephen was chosen by the 12 apostles of Jesus who were preaching the good news of Jesus after His death. Stephen was chosen along with 6 others to help administer resources among the local community and assist with their social needs. Although this was a very practical role, it required that the chosen 7 would be ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3). We are told that Stephen was ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6:5). He would be suited to helping distribute food evenly among the community and could be entrusted in his godly conduct and spiritual maturity.
Before Stephen and the 6 others chosen by the apostles began their responsibilities to the people, they were prayed over (Acts 6:6). The power of prayer is vital in every decision, especially in matters of oversight within the church. These 7 men were in a position to lead others by example through the Spirit of God that was at work in their lives. By praying over Stephen and the others from the start as they were taking a step of obedience to God, Stephen would be blessed in his new administrative role.
As these men went and served the community, the word of God spread and the number of followers or disciples of Jesus increased rapidly in Jerusalem (Acts 6:7). I pray that in our own local communities we can serve and love others like Jesus did, and with prayer and the Spirit of God in us, the word of the Lord will spread and the number of disciples will increase right where we are.
In Acts 6:8, we are told that Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power, who performed great wonders and signs among the people. I pray that in my own life I could become so FULL of God’s grace and power which can testify to God’s love for each of us and His desire for all men, women and children to come to know Him more.
Why Was Stephen Seized?
When God’s people are at work and are living to praise and serve Him, opposition is never too far away. Opposition arose against Stephen from members of a group of Jews called the ‘Synagogue of the Freedmen’. They took offence at how Stephen spoke of Jesus of Nazareth and how this Jesus was the one who Moses wrote about, and how Stephen placed Jesus as the promised Messiah who was greater than Moses. They were so opposed that they stirred up a variety of different people including the elders and teachers of the law and managed to convince people to stand as false witnesses against Stephen. Like Jesus, Stephen was falsely accused. He was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin, which means an assembly or council, which dealt with legal matters like a court.
Stephen walked closely with the Lord and this was reflected by how the men could not stand against the wisdom that the Spirit of God gave Stephen as he spoke (Acts 6:10) and how they all looked intently at him and Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). As we grow in Christ-likeness on the earth, we should remember that it is the Spirit of God that gives us the words to speak against those that accuse us and oppose us. We are warned that we will suffer on account of the name of Jesus, which is quite difficult to imagine as I type from my sofa on this warm, spring day. Nonetheless, I am comforted by the following verses of how we will be given the right words to say at the right time, and not to worry:
“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:12)
“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” (Luke 21:12-15)
“Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my [Jesus’] account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father [God the Father] speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:17-20)
Stephen could stand up against his adversaries knowing that the wisdom of God was in Him. He was bold as he spoke for Jesus in front of the Sanhedrin. I pray that we can boldly proclaim the gospel knowing that the wisdom of God dwells in us when we accept Christ as our Saviour and King.
This guy knew the Scriptures, just as he knew God personally. Stephen gives a speech as he addresses the court when they ask him, “Are these charges true?” (Acts 7:1). Stephen’s speech comes directly from the bible as he explains passages from Scripture that the Jews in the room would be very familiar with. I pray that I can become as familiar with the scriptures as Stephen, so I can speak the truth boldly at all times – whatever charges are brought against me. He knows the writings of Moses very well and uses this to show his opponents how they have wandered from the truth. I am using Paul Blackham’s Study Guide on Acts to help me explain this lengthy speech a bit better (Acts 7:1:53)!
- Abraham did not get any of the promised land and to be so passionate about the land and the temple of Jerusalem was not the way of Abraham. Also, he knew his descendants would spend a lot of time away from the promised land (v.4-5). Moreover, Joseph was rejected by his brothers and lived away from the promised land (v.9-16). Stephen is trying to show how his opponents’ zeal for the land and temple is not what Moses was writing about. Rather, Moses was pointing to the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and the new creation, just like Abraham did. As we wait patiently on earth, we believe by faith in things to come. We believe by faith in Jesus Christ, His death, His resurrection, His return and the New Heaven and Earth.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
- Stephen reminded his opponents that the Jewish people were not always on the side of Moses. They rejected Moses when he attempted to rescue them from slavery. Stephen is showing his opponents that God gave Moses authority and approval to lead His people out of Egypt, which highlights that Stephen was not speaking against Moses. Stephen was not rejecting Moses, but explaining how the prophecy Moses had predicted had come true through Jesus of Nazareth.
- The Jewish leaders had mistaken a man-made temple for the Lord Jesus. Rather than worshiping God whilst He walked the earth, they worshiped what their own hands had made. God cannot be contained within the walls of a temple – He is always with His people. Jesus Himself is the temple. ‘Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”‘(John 2:19) Jesus died on the cross and rose three days later. Stephen knew this to be true. He stood up to the opposition directly and exclaimed that they were the ones who crucified the Messiah! Even though they had received the word about the promised Messiah, they did not recognise it and disobeyed the law. Stephen said:
“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:52-53)
Stephen’s defence was truth-filled; it was saturated with scripture and God’s wisdom spoke through him as he addressed the Sanhedrin. There is power in the name of Jesus and this same power is in believers today. Will we boldly stand up for His truth when we face opposition, no matter what the outcome?
Reflecting on Stephen’s Death: A Martyr After God’s Own Heart
Stephen made the members of the Sanhedrin furious and they gnashed their teeth at him (Acts 7:54). Despite their reaction, Stephen being full of the Holy Spirit saw the glory of God and Jesus at the Father’s right hand:
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”(Acts 7:56)
What Stephen saw confirms the very words of Jesus Christ when He stood before the council of the elders of the people, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law. Jesus was asked if He was the Messiah and Jesus replied:
“If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” (Luke 22:67-69)
Thus, Stephen saw Jesus at the very place He said He would be – at the right hand of the Father – seated next to the Mighty God. Yelling and covering their ears, this resulted in the Sanhedrin rushing at him, dragging him out of the city and they began to stone him. The good news of Jesus is often received by others who want to yell over the truth and cover their ears, but God can still use it all for good.
The thought of someone being stoned to death is awful. I have read recently about people being stoned by terrorist groups for their faith or their sexuality for example and it grieves my heart. The thoughts of heavy rocks and jagged stones being forcefully thrown as it knocks them down, opening up their skin, bruising them to their core, killing their flesh… it is not an act of love. It is the very depth of evil come to light.
Stephen was dragged. Stephen was stoned to death. Whilst he was being brutally attacked with stones being hurled at him from every angle, from many people, he prayed. During this terrifying, painful ordeal he was praying to the Lord. Once again, his words echo the very words of Jesus as He was being crucified. Stephen said:
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59)
Jesus said on the cross, “”Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46).
Stephen must have been standing when the stoning began because after he asked the Lord to receive his spirit, he fell to his knees. Then, just like Jesus Christ on the cross who said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34), Stephen cried out and said:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)
Every stone thrown into his body put him in a place of forgiveness as he fell on his knees in prayer. May we be refined in such a way that we are on our knees, praying to God and asking for forgiveness and for the forgiveness of those that sin against us.
Until Stephen ‘fell asleep’ and went to be with the Lord in heaven, he was a true friend and follower of God. His actions reflect how he was filled with the Holy Spirit and how he had much wisdom against those who opposed him. He stood up for the truth boldly until the very end of his life. Even when he was being stoned, he prayed to God to receive his spirit, but to also forgive those who were persecuting him. In this moment of what appears to be absolute evil, Stephen is holding onto the hope that He has in Christ. He was enabled to see Jesus at the right hand of the Father in heaven when he stood trial. Stephen had become like Christ in his life and in his death. He stayed faithful until the very end, knowing that his reward in heaven with the Lord would be great. He knew the love of Jesus so intimately and glorified God through his servant-heart and His testimony of the faith before great opposition. Stephen as the first martyr of the Christian faith is someone who I am encouraged and challenged by. I pray that my own faith will be so rooted in Christ, that I can face all manner of opposition and still declare ‘Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven.’
Linking up with the wonderful Kelly Balarie and friends at Purposeful Faith 🙂