The story of Stephen is the story of the first Christian martyr. He was the first, but by no means was he the last. Since the days of Acts, it is estimated that over 70 million Christians have died for their faith. It’s nearly impossible to get an accurate number, but historians seem to have glommed onto that number. That’s a lot people willing to stand up for Christ in the face of death.
If you can’t imagine 70 million lost lives, how about these numbers:
• The number of Christians systematically exterminated in Nazi Germany numbered about one million, while the number of Orthodox Christians and others murdered in Russia between 1917 and 1950 hit 15 million.
• In China, at least 200,000 Christians and foreigners were killed in the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 to 1900. Another 700,000 were killed in communist China between 1950 and 1980.
• The number of Catholics killed in Mexico from the late 1800s to 1930 is estimated at 107,000, while 300,000 Christians are believed to have been killed under Idi Amin in Uganda between 1971 and 1979.
• Todd Johnson, of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, puts the number of Christians martyred annually at 100,000.
There is talk today about a “global war on Christians,” but it’s always been that way. It may be true that the intensity of Christian persecution varies wildly from nation to nation and from century to century, but it’s always been perilous to stand for Christ in this lost world. Our Lord acknowledged this:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10 – 12 | TNIV)
Even here in “the land of the free,” Christians really aren’t all the free anymore. We used to think it happened “over there,” with the distance acting as a kind of anesthetic. But in recent years, Christians here have experienced the mildest forms of persecution, Things like these tweets twittered by the likes of nutty Chris Matthews:
If you’re a politician and believe in God first, that’s all good. Just don’t run for government office, run for church office.
Or this piece of brilliance from Mike Dickerson, Democrat politician from Virginia:
Said it proudly! Want to decimate the Tea Party, The NRA, bible thumpers and Fox News zombies? Vote for me!
Even the gormless former President famously said,
It’s not surprising, then, that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Tweets and political ramblings are one thing, but when Christian bakers are sued and forced out of business because they take a stand for traditional faith and values, that persecution “over there” is starting to migrate over here.
Full of faith and power
Our introduction to the man who would become the first Christian martyr, Stephen, comes in the midst of an interesting time in the early church in Jerusalem:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”. (Acts 6:1 – 4 | TNIV)
The rapid church growth was exciting but it brought with it trouble that threatened to rip church from the inside out. The solution was to simply increase the number of church leaders, the only qualification at this early point was that they be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” One of those men was Stephen:
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. (Acts 6:5 | TNIV)
Stephen was named first and would become the first martyr and the focus of the following segment in Acts. Philip would become a major Christian witness throughout the area, but the rest of the group are never seen or heard from again in Acts.
Stephen was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” And he was, first of all, a peacemaker, helping to resolve the dispute that led to a serious quarrel among the church members. He was so strong in the Scriptures that his Jewish opponents couldn’t refute him as he presented Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. (Acts 6:10 | TNIV)
He not only knew the Word, but he also worked great “wonders” or “miracles.” Dr Luke, author of Acts, doesn’t tell us what those miracles were – we wish he would have – but we can assume they were miracles of healing and of casting out demons. Little wonder, then, that some Jewish leaders took notice and challenged him. But nobody can stand against one who is standing for Christ and who is allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through them. So they did what scoundrels are wont to do:
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”. (Acts 6:11 | TNIV)
Of course, he didn’t do that, but lies are all the enemies of God have to use against a sincere believer. Accusing Stephen of blasphemy was accusing him of a capital crime. To be precise, here’s what they accused him of saying:
For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”. (Acts 6:14| TNIV)
Just as the Jewish leaders had used Jesus’ words against Him in Mark 14:58, so now they ripped Stephen’s words out of context and twisted them all around. Jesus had previously talked about the destruction of the temple, so its likely Stephen simply repeated what he’d heard Jesus say. Taking things out of context is nothing new, but Stephen’s reaction to these false accusations was nothing less than stunning: No anger, only love.
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15 | TNIV)
Here was indisputable proof that this man was literally “full of the Holy Ghost.” Moses’ face had shone when he came down from the mountain after spending 40 days in God’s presence. Jesus’ face was transfigured on the mount. And so Stephen’s whole countenance was lighted with the glory of another world.
Almost all of Acts 7 is taken up with Stephen’s “defense.” I call it a “defense,” but that’s not really what it was. It was really just a positive presentation of Christian theology from a Jewish standpoint. There are two ways to look at Stephen’s apology. F.F. Bruce gives us his two main arguments:
1. God does not live in man-made buildings, He is not local to any particular jurisdiction, and God’s people are should not be confined to any particular spot.
2. The Jewish nation habitually rebel against God and God’s people. Previous generations had opposed and rebelled against the prophets from Moses onwards, and likewise his generation had killed “the righteous one.”
It would certainly be hard to dispute any points of Stephen’s “defense” any more than you could poke holes in Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. The Jews were obsessed with and proud of their great Temple, built for them by Herod. Stephen was absolutely correct in pointing out that God revealed Himself to, of all people, Abraham, not while he was in a Temple or a holy place, but in heathen land! God is not confined geographically and He doesn’t stay put in a building any man may build for him, even it that man was Solomon.
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. (Acts 7:48 | TNIV)
Interestingly enough, Solomon, the man who built a massive edifice for God to dwell in, made the same claim in 2 Chronicles 6:18,
“But will God really dwell on earth with human beings? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (TNIV)
What seemed obvious to Solomon and Stephen, and what seems so obvious to us, was completely missed by the proud Jewish leaders who actually believed that the glory of God was only to be found in their Temple.
So where does God dwell? Stephen quotes from Isaiah, so let’s look at the exact quote to see what Stephen was getting at:
This is what the Lord says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the Lord. “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” (Isaiah 66:1, 2 | TNIV)
That’s right. God doesn’t live in a building, He lives in the redeemed human heart. This profound, eternal truth struck at heart of Stephen’s listeners. And the last three verses see the defendant becoming the prosecutor as he turns the tables on them. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 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 7:51 – 53 | TNIV)
There could be no more offensive thing for these proud Jews to be told. The Greek word in behind “stiffnecked” suggests a stubborn ox refusing to receive the yoke on its neck. And to be called “uncircumcised” would be as bad as calling them “Gentiles” or “heathens!” In no uncertain terms, Stephen boldly spoke the truth about these men. They were as rebellious and as nasty as their forefathers who resisted the Holy Spirit as He sought to lead them and guide them.
A glorious home-going
It’s amazing to me that these smarmy Jewish religious leaders let Stephen go on for as long as they did. But, in the end, Stephen had sealed his fate just as surely as His Lord did. In a final twist of the knife, Stephen laid this on them:
But 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.” (Acts 7:55, 56 | TNIV)
In response to the visceral hatred of the Sanhedrin, Stephen remained “full of the Holy Spirit” and was given a glimpse into Heaven. What should have been the greatest vision of Stephen’s life was really a prelude to his death. In the verses that follow, we see the depths Judaism had sunk to in Jesus’ day.
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. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:57, 58 | TNIV)
And so the first Christian martyr meets his end and a man named Saul was there, watching the sad spectacle. This Saul of Tarsus heard Stephen’s speech and I wonder how much of it stayed with him. Surely Stephen’s death stayed with him, for though he was a martyr, he died a victorious death. It may well be that Stephen was the human agent that God used to get Saul’s attention and conquer his rebellious heart.
Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit and full of the grace of God. Even as he died, he echoed His Savior’s words:
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 7:59, 60 | TNIV)