The First Martyr
Published by Stanley Pouw in 2022 · 15 October 2022
A few weeks ago we looked at Acts 6 down through verse 7 and examined the original organization of the early church. That chapter opened with a problem because some of the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food and money. To make sure their needs were met, somebody had to oversee the distribution of food and money and serve tables.
So they decided to select seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom to put in charge of this task. The only one about whom it says anything is a man named Stephen. He becomes the main character in the narrative through the rest of this chapter and Acts 7. Stephen was a Greek-speaking believer in Jesus Christ who had belonged to a Jewish synagogue in a foreign land.
So let’s read from Acts 6:8-15, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), who disputed with Stephen. 10 But they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke.”
11 Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came and seized him, and brought him to the council. 13 They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law.”
14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” 15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” The high priest said, ‘Are these things so?’” And Stephen gave a very long answer all the way through Acts 7. Let me continue so you know the whole story.
In response to this, verse 54 says, “When they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’
But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’
Having said this, he died. Saul was in agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house and dragging off men and women, then he would put them in prison.”
What an amazing man, this Stephen. He was not a deacon, but he was put in charge of serving tables. He was not an apostle, but he did signs and wonders. The miraculous power granted to the apostles was extended to him and also to another leader named Philip. He was not a prophet, but he was a great preacher. He was a unique man. He stands between the apostles and the early church.
He had a very short career. The church is new and very young, and that means he is a new believer, but the vast grasp that he had of the Old Testament is enough to be laid out in an entire chapter because of its accuracy and its richness. He was the first Christian martyr. This is a man who is great by every divine measure. He’s full of everything that every believer should be full of.
Because of his martyrdom and the persecution that was launched when he was martyred that the believers scattered. And that was the purpose of God in his martyrdom because Jesus said, “When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world.” What was going to send them into the world? Persecution, martyrdom and the threat of death.
The mantle of Stephen falls strangely on Saul, one of Stephen’s most bitter enemies. The length of a man’s life has often times little to do with its impact. This is the only sermon that he ever preached, and there were no positive results. Yet it was the catalyst that caused the church to move in the next step of the Great Commission. It may have been his death that began the career of Saul who became Paul.
The church boldly proclaimed the gospel, boldly confronted the Jews, accepting persecution and using it as an opportunity to further proclaim the gospel. All who believed were baptized, and they were all engaged in the apostle’s doctrine, prayer and the breaking of bread and fellowship. They knew the message was Christ and Him crucified, risen, reigning and returning.
Then there were the apostles who were doing all the teaching early on, but you can see the responsibility to teach begins to transition to those men who were chosen there in Acts 6. Stephen becomes a preacher and Philip becomes a preacher. So there was a spiritual organization. That leads us up to our text in Acts 6:8 where we see the short career of this man named Stephen.
As we look at Stephen, let me just look at four thoughts, his choosing, his character, his courage, and his countenance. Look at Acts 6:3. They’re looking for, “men of good reputation who are full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” Stephen was one of those men. They want seven of them out of the thousands of Christians now. Stephen was one of the seven. He was a Jew from outside Israel.
Stephen establishes his unique spiritual greatness by the fact that the Church chose him. He was approved by the body for the highest office the body could appoint. The choice was validated by the second point, his character. Everything about him indicates that they chose well. Now, he was full of two things: faith and the Holy Spirit. Full of faith means to be filled up.
What do we know about his faith? Look at Acts 7:2, “Hear me, brethren and fathers. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Leave your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ He is quoting Genesis 12. “Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.”
From there, after his father died, God had him move to this country in which you are now living. But He gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot of ground, and yet, even when he had no child, He promised that He would give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him.” He’s quoting Genesis 13. He believed in the authenticity and validity of the Old Testament.
He believed that God ruled history. The common idea in the world is that kings, governors and politicians make history. Stephen believed that God wrote history. It was all a revelation of God’s character, God’s purpose and God’s plan. In verse 52, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One.”
He believed Jesus was the Messiah. He believed in Jesus as the righteous one of God, and he believed that His death was the pivotal point in which history turned. He also believed that Jesus was risen. How do we know that? Because in verse 55, “Being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Verse 59, “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He believed the Messiah cared for him. He believed that the Lord Jesus, was waiting to receive him. He believed in the Holy Spirit, in verse 51 he says, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears. You are always resisting the Holy Spirit, as your fathers did.”
In verse 3, he is also full of wisdom. His wisdom is so beyond argument that when he speaks, his enemies cannot withstand what he says. And in fury and anger they kill him because they can’t answer his arguments. And in verse 8, he is full of grace. It’s the grace that he gave, full of “lovingkindness.” While they’re stoning him, he cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”
Acts 7:59 says, “Receive my spirit and please forgive them.” Then it tells us in verse 8 that he was full of power. He is full of Holy Spirit power to an apostolic degree. He is performing great wonders and signs among the people. He is doing miracles to validate him as one who speaks for God. This is before there was a New Testament. You would know that he was a speaker for God because of this power.
The apostles are going to the Jerusalem Jews. Paul later will go to the Gentiles. Stephen will go to the Jews in gentile lands. He starts in Jerusalem where synagogues for these pilgrims existed. There were communities of Grecian Jews who had resettled in the land of Israel. When there were feasts, when people came on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they would go to these synagogues.
Historians tell us that there were nearly 500 synagogues in Jerusalem. Now, this group is identified for us. The synagogue of the Freedman. Pompeii, the Roman general, had carried off large numbers of Jews as prisoners to Rome and sold them as slaves. Likely, this synagogue was developed by freed Roman slaves who had returned to their city to worship. It takes only ten men do open a synagogue.
There also is mentioned Cyrenians, a city in Libyan. Then Alexandrians, the capital of Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great. Cilicia is mentioned, a settlement known as Asia Minor near Syria, and the principal city of Cilicia was Tarsus. Saul was from Tarsus Here is where Saul probably functioned in the synagogue of the people from Cilicia. But to them, Stephen went.
And what did he do? In verse 9 He rose up and argued with them and they argued back with him. But in verse 10 they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. When it says argued or disputing, it doesn’t necessarily indicate anger. But a kind of fair debate in which there was actual arguments are presented. The exact subject of the debate we don’t know.
Verse 11, “Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They said he was arguing against the Old Testament. He was also arguing for the deity of Christ. By dismissing the saving power of the Law of Moses, he was seen as blaspheming Moses. And by identifying Jesus as God, he was blaspheming God in their minds.
He declared to them that the Law of Moses cannot save. It can only condemn. Maybe this is where Paul for the first time heard that, “By the deeds of the law, no flesh will be justified.” Maybe Paul heard for the first time that all the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ. To these Jews, these were blasphemous words, blasphemy against God by saying Jesus is equal to God.
So these agitated Hellenistic Jews left their synagogues and started saying that Stephen was a blasphemer. That is exactly what happened to our Lord Jesus. Verse 12, “And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.” This is the Sanhedrin. This is where the false witnesses show up.
Verse 13, “They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law.” Certainly, he was telling them the true purpose of the law, to define sin, not provide salvation. Verse 14, “for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
He’s preaching on the New Testament with Jesus as Lord and Messiah. Stephen knows what they’ve done to the Lord. He knows that they have already imprisoned and beaten the apostles. He knows what’s at stake, but his courage is undiminished. Stephen says in Acts 7:51, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are doing just what your fathers did.”
Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become.” Wow, this man is heroic. We see it in his character. We see it in his courage. Verse 15, “And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.”
He stands, as Moses did before his people in shining purity with the mark of divine favor on his face. And at the end of his life, he saw the glory of God, in Acts 7:55. He saw the heavens open. He saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. He called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” God is still looking for people who have courage and boldness that has no limit.
God will demonstrate His glory on the face of those people in the calm, peaceful, almost transcendent trust that comes through in the most hateful circumstances. I imagine that Saul, never forgot the face of Stephen. Maybe when he was on the Damascus Road and the Lord blinded him and said, “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads.” He may have thought of the face of Stephen. Let us pray.