The arrest and interrogation of Stephen results in his death by stoning in ACTS 7. Was it something he said? Absolutely. ◊
Many people have been killed as martyrs for their cause, be it religion, politics, or something they hold sacred. Stephen, the good, wise, and faithful deacon/servant of the early Christian church is brutally murdered in the midst of a Jewish leadership council’s interrogation of him on trumped up charges of blasphemy against Moses and God.
He goes down in amazingly Christ-like fashion with nothing but forgiveness on his lips as he dies. He is cited as the first Christian martyr.
But it’s what he says before he is killed that causes the uproar and attack from the truth-convicted crowd of Christ-haters.
If one reads and grasps Stephen’s brilliant and cogent opening statement to the ruling counsel, you will have digested the equivalent of a good college survey course in Judeo-Christian religious history.
It’s a worthy read for everyone, Christian and atheist alike.
Stephen – the First Christian Martyr
While his name is Greek (from Stephanos), Stephen was most likely a Jew, perhaps a Hellenistic Jew who spoke Greek and adopted Greek customs and an early convert “filled with the Holy Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). He also was one of the 7 reputable men selected to support the original apostles in administering and supervising the distribution of property and charity to the early Christians in Jerusalem. (see Acts 6:1-6)
But anti-Christ factions in the Jewish community confronted Stephen as he boldly acted in obedience to the Holy Spirit. But they could not stand up to the wisdom the Spirit gave him. (see Acts 6:8-10)
Furious with him, some Jewish leaders conspired to destroy him and instigated false charges and witnesses. They seized him and brought him before the council of the Jewish priestly class. (Acts 6:11-14)
So What Did Stephen Actually Say?
In front of his accusers, this man Stephen was unfazed. It is clear that he spoke truly like a man filled with the Spirit of the living God in answer to the question from the high priest, “Is this so?” (See Acts 7:1).
For the next 52 verses, Stephen gives the council a profound Jewish history lesson:
- Stephen reaches back to the beginning of the Jewish era starting with God’s call to Abraham and the promise of the land of Israel to his descendants. (Acts 7:2-5)
- He describes God’s prediction of the enslavement of his descendants, ill-treated as aliens in a land for 400 years. (Acts 7:6)
- He describes God’s judgment on that imprisoning nation,[Egypt]. (Acts 7:7)
- He speaks of the covenant of circumcision and the line of descendants: Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons. (Acts 7:8)
- He describes the 11 sons’ jealous actions against their brother, Joseph, who is sold into slavery in Egypt, yet with God’s hand finds favor before Pharaoh the king who makes him governor over all of Egypt. (Acts 7:9-10)
- He retells the story of the great famine in Egypt and Canaan and those circumstances which led Joseph’s father and the patriarch’s 75 member family to make their new residence in Egypt under the protective authority of Pharaoh and Joseph. (Acts 7:11-16)
- Then he speaks how over time the sons of Jacob grew and multiplied in Egypt until there arose a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, his family, and their history, and who sought to destroy their infant sons. Then an infant named Moses survives. (Acts 7:17-22)
- He speaks then of Moses who, at the age of 40, desires to defend his brethren, captive Israel, enslaved by Egypt. But his own crime forces Moses himself to flee to Midian hundreds of miles away in exile. (Acts 7:23-29)
- Then he tells the story about how Moses, 40 years later, returns and rises to leadership of all of Israel after his encounter with God in a burning bush at Mount Sinai: “I am the God of your father, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…. Now come, I will send you to Egypt.” (Acts 7:30-34)
- He then speaks of many signs and wonders of God through Moses who delivers his people from Egypt and then experiences 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.(Acts 7:36-44)
- Then he reminds them of how Joshua finally leads them into the promised land after displacing the nations that Go drove out before them; until eventually it was David who conceived the idea, but whose son, Solomon, builds the Temple of the Most High. (Acts 7:44-50)
- He finally finishes with a flourish, labeling his current accusers as “stiff-necked people” (the same as the stubborn historical Hebrews), “uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] always resist the Holy Spirit.” He reminds them of their fathers’ persecution of God’s prophets and their own betrayal and murdering of the Righteous One (Jesus Christ). (Acts 7:51-52)
With Stephen’s strong concluding punchline, the Jewish leaders were enraged. He had no fear though:
Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him…. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
Stephen, an Amazing Model for Us
Stephen was but a man, however a man modeling Christ-like characteristics, memorialized now in the Bible as the first Christian martyr. While gentle and humble, he was fiercely bold and courageous, and he possessed a wisdom that could articulate a clear historical narrative and relevant context.
Though this boldness ultimately cost him his life, he died fearless in the light and knowledge of who he was and who was His God. An amazing testimony of an amazing man.
Are you like Stephen?
“Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.” – Acts 8:2