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  • Writer's picturePastor Brett

Stephen the First Martyr

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The Bible predicts a rise in martyrdom as the end times draw to a close.

  • John 16:2 = an “hour” will come when men will kill Christians as a “service to God.”

  • Matthew 24:9 = all nations will hate Christians.

  • Luke 21:13 = persecution will provide believers with opportunities to testify to their faith.

Persecution statistics.

  • More than 70 million Christians have been martyred in the course of history. More than half were martyred in the 20th century under communist and fascist governments.

  • In the 21st century, roughly 100,000 to 160,000 Christians were killed each year.

  • Roughly 1,093,000 Christians were martyred, worldwide, between 2000 and 2010.

  • 322 Christians are killed for their faith every month.

  • 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed every month.

  • 772 forms of violence (beatings, kidnappings, rape, arrest, etc.) are committed against Christians every month.

The point is that persecution of Christians is not only a historical phenomenon, it is arguably worse in modern times. While the most typical persecutors of the Church are people of Muslim faith, there are instances of Christians killing Christians.

Stephen was a man of great faith, and he experienced great opposition.

1. Acts 7:1-53 = Stephen’s defense.

His defense was historical, offering examples of how God fulfilled His promises.

- God promised Abraham a new homeland and innumerable descendants to live in it, but he did not live to see the fulfillment of that promise. (2-8)

- God promised He would make a great man out of Joseph, but he had to endure numerous trials first. (9-16)

- God promised to free His people from slavery. He chose Moses to be their deliverer and Law-giver, but Moses had to overcome many obstacles to fulfill these promises. (17-45)

- God showed favor to David, and David responded with a desire to build a temple, but it was his son Solomon who received the honor of building God’s temple. (46-50)

- The fulfillment of these promises either came after the death of the recipient or after a great deal of trial and sacrifice on their part.

Stephen’s defense was also accusatory, charging the Sanhedrin of being stubborn unbelievers because they refused to recognize Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Messiah. (51-53) They were STUBBORN - literally, “stiff-necked” - in their rebellion against God’s authority. (i.e., Exodus 7:39-41)

In spite of claims to orthodoxy, they were effectively HEATHEN AT HEART and DEAF TO THE TRUTH. This phrase could be literally translated as them having “uncircumcised hearts and ears.” Their loyalty was only superficial (Leviticus 26:41; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:26).

Resistant TO THE HOLY SPIRIT, they ignored God’s messengers as their ancestors had done. (Isaiah 63:9-10).

In fact, they had done worse than their ancestors, for they opposed the Messiah.

Stephen accused them of having BETRAYED the Messiah. Actually, Judas betrayed Him. You could say Peter betrayed Jesus with his three denials. These Jewish leaders BETRAYED Jesus in the sense that they were supposed to recognize and receive Him as their Messiah, but instead, turned Him over to Roman executioners.

Stephen accused the Jewish leaders of having MURDERED the Messiah. Technically, no Jewish hands nailed Jesus to His cross; the Romans did the deed. However, these same Jewish leaders were at the very least accessories before the fact.

In all this, they DELIBERATELY DISOBEYED GOD’S LAW, despite having received it FROM THE HANDS OF ANGELS. Angels are God’s messengers, and they help God’s people understand God’s word (Hebrews 2:2). This was the very Law they thought they were busy keeping and defending from all threats.

Jesus Christ, as the Messiah, was the fulfillment of all God’s promises, but the Sanhedrin and others refused to see Him in this light. In this way, they were worse than their ancestors who killed the prophets. (53)

2. Acts 7:54-60 = Stephen’s demise.

The JEWISH LEADERS’ anger is demonstrated in vs. 54, 57-58. They were INFURIATED and enraged. (54) They SHOOK THEIR FISTS AT HIM is literally, “they were sawn through their hearts.” This is a biblical expression for hatred, coupled with a desire to destroy the object of their hatred. This is sometimes used to describe righteous anger, but in this case, they unrighteously refused to listen to him any longer. (57)

All pretense of civilized law-abiding citizenry soon disappeared; these respected leaders became a mob. (57-58) The faux legal proceeding became a lynching. They violated their own rules for due process, including a requirement that the sentence be pronounced and carried out the day following the verdict. Also, even a defendant found guilty was to be given a chance to repent. Stephen was allowed neither of these legalities.

Also, the death penalty was withheld from them by Roman law. The fact that they carried it out anyway shows how angry they were. In the moment, they didn’t care what the Romans said. The mention of Saul fore-shadows 8:1-3 and chapter 9, where Saul becomes Paul when he is converted to the faith.

Contrast the religious leaders’ anger with Stephen’s peace. (55-56, 59-60) Stephen’s peace flowed from the fact that he was FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. Where the religious leaders resisted the Holy Spirit, Stephen was fully involved with Him.

Stephen had a vision of heaven. It was there, not in the temple, that he saw THE GLORY OF GOD residing. This detail exposed their hypocrisy in revering the temple instead of God.

He saw Jesus standing in a place of HONOR, at GOD’S RIGHT HAND. It is His position, not His posture, that is important; Stephen saw Jesus in the place of power and influence with God the Father. Just a few years previously, Jesus Himself had stood before this same council and predicted the very same thing (Mark 14:62).

His last words were a prayer. Stephen prayed for himself: “LORD JESUS, RECEIVE MY SPIRIT.” This statement echoes Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 24:36)

Stephen prayed for the mob: “LORD, DON’T CHARGE THEM WITH THIS SIN!” This statement echoes Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 24:34) May it be said of us that our dying words repeat the words of Jesus.

Stephen was a man of great faith, and he experienced great opposition.

Last week I asked why the Sanhedrin went after Stephen, having arrested the Apostles twice in previous chapters. I speculated then that the Sanhedrin had a change in strategy, going after a lower-level leader, hoping he might be easier to discourage.

A problem with that theory is that the text gives us no indication that the Sanhedrin knew or cared that Stephen was a deacon. What it does tell us, in 6:6, is that Stephen did AMAZING SIGNS AMONG THE PEOPLE. That is how he came to their attention. In 6:10, he defeated men for a loyal synagogue in public debate. That is why he had to be silenced. That is why he was arrested.

These men were not doing anything different with Stephen. They were being reactive, not proactive. They were winging it, not being strategic. I believe even though it had recently failed them twice, the Sanhedrin was going to attempt a third time to intimidate a representative from the Church into silence.

If their method was the same, why was the outcome different? Why did Stephen die when none of the Apostles were killed?

One, notice an escalation. In chapter four, Peter and John were imprisoned – in response to a public miracle – but were only given a warning. In chapter six, all the Apostles were detained – in response to miracles done in the temple courts – and were given a flogging. In chapters six and seven, Stephen was doing miracles among the people and he was detained. The punishment became more serious. Once that line was crossed, once Stephen’s life was unjustly and violently taken, then all kinds of acts of persecution became possible. The situation quickly worsened in Jerusalem and the Church was forced to leave the city, expanding into all parts of the ancient world.

Two, Stephen’s response was much more confrontational than the Apostles. You might call theirs “quiet resistance.” Stephen argued harder and longer and brought accusation against the Sanhedrin. As his response was stronger, so was theirs. Given both these factors, Stephen’s martyrdom was a predictable tragedy.

All this reminds me of a quote from Roman Catholic Archbishop Francis George; “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” He died in his bed in 2015, following a long fight with cancer. We will see if the remainder of his predictions will come true.

Everyone who follows Jesus is commanded to prepare for His Second Coming. Part of that preparation is to strengthen our faith to be able to stand in the face of opposition and persecution, just as Stephen did.


RESOURCES

Persecution statistics retrieved from http://theestherproject.com/statistics/ on 13 June 2023.

Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol. 12, 2006, Acts, William J. Larkin.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, 1981, Richard N. Longenecker.

Cardinal George quote retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/710347.Francis_George on 13 June 23.

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