Stephen the Martyr

Peter and Stephen both condemned their audiences for murdering the Son of God, and people were cut to the heart. Peter provoked change; Stephen ended up dead.

Stephen in the Bible is known as the first Christian martyr. At his trial, after he reviewed the truthful history of Israel, Stephen condemned the Jewish leaders for not keeping the law and for killing the prophets and the Just One. At this point he was attacked, and even the one who later became the apostle Paul was consenting to his death.

Yet just before his martyrdom, Stephen looked into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at His right hand. When he mentioned this to the crowd, they went berserk by stopping their ears, casting him out of the city and stoning him to death (Acts 7:55-59).

Who was Stephen?

The first time we read about Stephen in the Bible is in Acts 6. The context shows that there was a complaint among some in the Church that a group of widows was being neglected. The apostles determined that seven men should be chosen to handle that situation. The decision pleased the members.

The first man to be chosen was Stephen (Acts 6:5). He was selected not only for his good reputation and for being full of the Holy Spirit, but also for his wisdom (verse 3).

And Stephen had an additional spiritual characteristic: he was a man “full of faith” (verse 5). A faithful man, as we would call him. A man of faith.

Six other men were also chosen at that time. They all were known as the first deacons and were ordained by the apostles (verse 6).

Stephen the deacon

Deacons serve the Church even now in numerous ways. It’s interesting to note that there are other qualities that they should exhibit in their personal lives in addition to those mentioned in Acts.

The apostle Paul lists these qualifications for deacons: “Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience” (1 Timothy 3:8-9).

According to Vincent’s Word Studies: “The mystery of the faith is the subject-matter of the faith; the truth which is its basis, which was kept hidden from the world until revealed at the appointed time, and which is a secret to ordinary eyes, but is made known by divine revelation.”

Stephen had that mystery of faith and shared that revealed truth with others. “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

Later, some disputed with what Stephen was saying, but they couldn’t prove him wrong: “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke” (verse 10).

Stephen set us an example of faith in action. He not only spoke about the powerful acts of God, but also lived his faith.So, as happened to Jesus Christ, false accusations were brought against Stephen, and he was seized and brought before the council and high priest. He was asked about the accusations and defended his faith with boldness.

In fact, we read later: “For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 3:13).

Stephen’s response

In his lengthy answer in Acts 7, Stephen recounted the history of Israel to all who were in attendance, and they apparently agreed with him until a certain point.

Stephen, as a man full of faith, first detailed the following powerful acts of God:

  • “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia . . . And from there, when his [Abraham’s] father was dead, He [God] moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (verses 2, 4).
  • “And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him” (verse 5).
  • “And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house . . . So Jacob went down to Egypt; and he died, he and our fathers” (verses 9-10, 15).
  • “But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt till another king arose who did not know Joseph” (verses 17-18).
  • “At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father’s house for three months” (verse 20).
  • “And when forty years had passed, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire in a bush, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai. When Moses saw it, he marveled at the sight; and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses trembled and dared not look. ‘Then the LORD said to him, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send you to Egypt”’” (verses 30-34).
  • “He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years” (verse 36).

Stephen then transitioned to a warning message. He reminded those present that Israel disobeyed God, and that they should have listened to God and the One whom He sent.

  • “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear’” (verse 37).
  • “And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands. Then God turned and gave them up to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the Prophets: ‘Did you offer Me slaughtered animals and sacrifices during forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? You also took up the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Remphan, images which you made to worship; and I will carry you away beyond Babylon’” (verses 41-43).
  • “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool. What house will you build for Me? says the LORD, or what is the place of My rest? Has My hand not made all these things?’” (verses 48-50).

Stephen had quoted Scripture, and the audience appeared to have accepted and believed what he said. It was at this point that Stephen then indicted them for breaking the law and killing Christ.

  • “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (verses 51-53).

The stoning of Stephen

The crowd went ballistic! Instead of listening, believing and repenting as the 3,000 people did whose hearts were cut on the Day of Pentecost after Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:37), these people got angry and killed Stephen.

  • “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:54-58).

It was during his stoning that Stephen powerfully demonstrated the depth of his faith. He called on God to be merciful to those who were killing him, using similar words to the ones Christ had used during His crucifixion (Luke 23:34).

  • “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).

When the Bible refers to a person falling asleep in this context, it means the person died. Throughout the Bible, death is likened to sleep since it is a state of unconsciousness.

Lessons for us from the example of Stephen

Stephen set us an example of faith in action. He not only spoke about the powerful acts of God, but also lived his faith.

He reminded people that everyone needs to learn from the mistakes Israel made. He allowed Christ’s thoughts and mind-set to permeate his thinking (Philippians 2:5). They are reflected throughout his response and in his last statements before his death.

Finally, just as Stephen looked to God and to Jesus Christ even to the end of his life, so must we!

Further inspiring stories of faith are found in the “Men of Faith” and “Women of Faith” sections.

About the Author

John Foster

John Foster

John Foster grew up in the Chicago, Illinois, area and began attending the Church of God with his parents in 1958.

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