Stephen - Christianity’s First Martyr
Acts 6 - 8 - 15 & 7 : 51 - 59
We know almost nothing about Stephen’s life before he appears in the Book of Acts. His name is Greek and this suggests he was one of those Jews who had been born somewhere foreign to Judaea and whose native tongue was Greek. However, according to a fifth century tradition, the name Stephanos was the Greek equivalent for the Aramaic Kelil (Syr. kelila, crown), which may have been his original name and this was inscribed on a slab found centuries later in his tomb. Many Jewish people who came to Britain changed their Hebrew names. Nigel and Nigella Lawson’s family did so, for example. Jews did this in many other countries to assimilate and to make themselves more acceptable. The fact that Nicolas is the only one of the seven designated as a Jewish convert makes it almost certain that Stephen was Jewish by birth. He was well educated and presented an exceptional defence of himself to the Sanhedrin. We do not know when and in what circumstances he became a Christian.
Stephen was a charismatic Christian with apostolic gifts and graces. He healed the sick through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although not one of The Twelve, he displayed a range of God’s power in his profession and ministry. It is possible that he was controversial and even provocative. It is hard not to be if you are a cutting edge evangelist. You are giving people a chance, an opportunity, perhaps their only one to become a Christian. There was an expatriate synagogue in Jerusalem just as there is St Columba’s Church in London. It was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen and Jewish people from Egypt and Libya, Turkey and further east (and probably some other places too) worshipped there when in town. It seems likely that Stephen went along and asked to speak. He could do so much as the Brethren have elders to conduct services and preach. Stephen was heard and then much dispute and disagreement broke out. No doubt the central issue was that Jews regarded themselves as the Chosen People, the elect race. Gentiles were inferior and to no purpose. Jews had no sense of calling to bring everyone on earth into a relationship of knowledge, love and salvation with God. But they had been listening to Stephen tell them that God had called a new people, a New Israel to take his saving mission to the whole world. This was news to them but to them it was not good news to them. They were not happy. They were not pleased. Stephen was articulate and convincing in his presentations. He explained that the days of the importance of the Temple were over and that the Law had been supplanted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Stephen was persuasive but you cannot argue people into God’s kingdom. There was sufficient hostility to Stephen’s claims about Jesus to cause him problems. He however was more inspired and filled with the Holy Spirit in proportion to the opposition he was receiving. This infuriated his opponents who could not defeat him. Neither could they defeat the Holy Spirit. So they resorted to authority, arrest and violence.
Stephen’s new enemies reported him to the Sanhedrin for blasphemy and they campaigned against him so that their complaint would be taken seriously. They took Stephen’s sermons out of context and instead of crediting him with offering a new vision of God’s saving intention, charged him with undermining Judaism and making of Jesus of Nazareth a destroyer and demolisher of Jerusalem rather than the Saviour of the world. Stephen’s message was completely distorted and he was made to be an outcast and false claimant - a blasphemer - which conviction carried the death penalty. Stephen was dragged along to the Sanhedrin and listened to the prosecution’s case against him. Verse 15 says All…looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. Even modest Christians have living grace written on their faces. Some of you have this as you leave church each Sunday. When I met Pope John Paul II, his face shone with a spiritual glow. So much more so did Stephen reflect the grace of Jesus Himself. Stephen was asked if what he was charged with was true. He then embarked on along expository defence showing that he was learned in Jewish history and faith. He found common ground with the court in Jewish calling and identity. He summed up 1300 years of Jewish history in the world, highlighting the pivotal moments from the early Old Testament. So far so good.
But then Stephen went on the attack. Having lulled his audience by his orthodox Judaism, he then addressed them with condemnatory words. You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears. You are just like your fathers. You always resist the Holy Spirit. Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. (That was John the Baptist and the Messiah). And now you have betrayed and murdered him too - you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it. (Or you would not have had Jesus crucified). Fearless, brave and defiant, Stephen witnessed for Jesus - but - there was nothing conciliatory in his attack. This was a wholesale denunciation of the corruption of Jews and of Judaism. He mentioned the idolatry of the golden calf, the worshipping of other man-made middle eastern gods and goddesses such as Moloch and Astarte. Then there was the neglect of the Law and the persecution of prophets and the loss of divine purpose and calling through disobedience. For all their privileges, Jews had been rebellious and unfaithful throughout their history. Stephen reminded them and they did not like what they were hearing. Above all, Jews had kept to themselves what was intended for everyone - the knowledge of God.
No surprise then that most listening to him were very angry and ground their teeth as a sign of their bitterness. Stephen however was unbowed and uncowed. He was living on a different level and he said, I see heaven open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God. This infuriated Stephen’s opponents and others present even more for no Jew could claim to see God. Lynch mob mentality took over and there was not even time for a proper conclusion to the trial. The penalty for blasphemy was, according to Deuteronomy 13:6ff stoning. But we know from Jesus’ time that the Jews had no right to put anyone to death. Jesus suffered a Roman execution. Such was the hatred of Stephen inflamed by his godly presence and saintliness which they could not defeat that all those concerned proved Stephen’s criticisms true by abandoning due process and seeking his immediate death. They had already forgotten Gamaliel’s wise and temperate advice not to use violence against Christians. Maybe he was not present. Maybe there was nothing he could do. Maybe having saved Peter and the apostles he did not feel inclined to intervene again. Maybe he realised that nothing he would say would diminish the spiritual violence. Maybe he was sad and disappointed. It is not likely that he went to take part in Stephen’s death.
On our TV screens in news bulletins we have seen the stoning of Muslim women for adultery. A pit is dug and the woman is placed in it up to her neck. Then stones and boulders are thrown at her head until she dies. In Stephen’s time the person due this punishment was taken outside the city to a hill with a cliff face. He was thrown over by his prime accusers. If the fall killed the person that was it over. If not, large stones and boulders were hurled down on him until he died. Stephen did not die immediately. He had time to pray Lord Jesus. Receive my spirit - Lord do not hold this sin against them. It was quite quick nevertheless. The text says that Stephen fell asleep. That is what it looked like in spite of the gashed and bruises. He died peacefully amid hatred and violence. As Jesus did when He said Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. That is something every Christian can inherit. To die peacefully. No matter the ravages of illness and the dependence of our last weakness, we can die peacefully in Jesus Christ. That is the blessing of being a saved soul.
It seemed to those who did this that they had won the day and extinguished Stephen’s influence and the message he proclaimed. But a member of the lynch party who was to become the greatest Christian of them all was guarding the jackets. He threw no stones. He was not a primary accuser. Acts 8:1 adds And Saul was there giving approval to Stephen’s death. Christian men went and rescued Stephen’s body for burial.
Stephen is the Christian Church’s first martyr. His feast day is 26th December. Good King Wencleslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen. Many churches throughout the world have been and are named in honour of Saint Stephen. There was no official "Tomb of St Stephen" until 415AD when Christian pilgrims were travelling in large numbers to Jerusalem began to be told that his tomb was in Caphar Gamala, some distance to the north of Jerusalem. There is no archaeological confirmation that that is actually the case.
Christianity has its spiritual heroes. Christianity cannot survive if Christians do not stand up to be counted no matter however humble their status and calling. We must remember that the faith we inherited was not easily won in any human culture or history including that of mediaeval Scotland. Our own freedoms were dearly bought. But the stoning of Stephen was counter productive for Jews and Judaism. No-one can fight against God and win. No-one can defeat the resurrection of Jesus. No-one can extinguish the Holy Spirit. Injustice and protectionism always fail. Truth and freedom always win. Not easily or cheaply. But Stephen’s and Christianity’s victory will never be denied as long as Christians stand for Jesus Christ in their own time and calling.