St Stephen

The first Christian Martyr

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St Stephen
The first Christian Martyr by Luis de Morales

Public Domain

Stephen, who is celebrated as the first martyr in the name of Christ, appears in the New Testament only in the book of Acts. Of the 7 chosen to attend to the material needs of the widows, Stephen in particular is “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Stephen was possibly a Greek-speaking Jew with cultural roots in the Dispersion. Even before his conversion to the way of Jesus, he would be less bound than the “Hebrews” to the letter of the Mosaic Law.

If Stephen was a Greek speaking, and Greek culture following Jew (Hellenist), it is not surprising that as a Christian he was challenged particularly by fellow Hellenist Jews of the Dispersion (Acts 6:9) who wished to retain their association with the traditions of Israel. They provided the strongest opposition to the growing church through the whole apostolic age. Stephen was charged with speaking against the Temple and the Law. This was in order to secure his conviction by the Sanhedrin, which was dominated by conservative Sadducees (Acts 6:11-14). But in his speech (Acts 7:2-53) Stephen hardly addresses these charges, except to argue that the Temple should never have been built (Acts 7:44-50). Rather he shows that the Jews right through their history have been disobedient to God’s law, just as they have now murdered the “righteous one” (Acts 7:52f.). Stephen’s speech is no defence, but rather a prosecution of the whole Jewish nation. It is an attack on “the people” as well as the elders and scribes (Acts 6:12), anticipating the Jewish rejection of the gospel. This is an idea that runs right through the book of Acts

Stephen’s speech is followed inevitably by his martyrdom. As he dies, full of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1), Stephen sees the Son of Man at the right hand of God as Jesus promised he would be (Luke 22:69). Stephen had stones thrown at him until he died, as Jesus had indicated was the fate of those sent by God (Luke 13:34).

He commits his spirit to Jesus, just as Jesus commended his life to the Father (Luke 23:46). Not being physically constrained by crucifixion, he kneels down like Jesus in Gethsemane (Luke 22:41), and also prays forgiveness for his executioners (cf. Luke 23:34). If Jesus himself is the first martyr of the Christian era described by Luke, Stephen is the martyr who now stands closest to him in God’s heavenly glory (cf. Acts 7:55).