A martyr is anyone who is killed because of their religious or political beliefs. The two, usually meant the same, at least during the period of the early church. Stephen had just been appointed for the administrative works of the church, but little did he know that he would go down in history as the first martyr of the early church. There have been biblical characters like John the Baptist and Zechariah the prophet, who have been killed for their unfiltered outcry. In his final speech Stephen even acknowledges the martyrs before him who were killed because of their outspoken beliefs.
Stephen, a Jew by birth was given the responsibility of ensuring that the Hellenistic Jews are not overlooked and that every member of the Church is treated fairly. Luke also mentions Stephen to be a man full of God’s grace and power, who performed great wonders and signs among the people. Seeing the great wonders Stephen performed, the members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen started to have frequent arguments with him but the Holy Spirit would enable Stephen with the knowledge and wisdom to answer all questions.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God. – Acts 6:11
And so the committee that had taken upon themselves to personally put an end to the Jesus movement, the Sanhedrin, were called to probe into the allegations. When Jesus was brought before them for allegedly committing blasphemous acts, he was executed. Now Stephen stood before them with the same fate. Stephen had two options, plead his innocence or let the Holy Spirit take over, he took the latter route.
Stephen started his narrative from the patriarch Abraham, who left his household following God’s orders to Moses who led the Israelites out of slavery, to all the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. They did not listen to any of them and when the Messiah did come, they killed him also.
“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 – Acts 7:51-53
Stephen was asked to redeem himself from the claims that he had blasphemed against Moses, instead he fiercely criticized them for blindly following their religious activities. Stephen’s Speech infuriated them further.
Comparisons can be drawn from his Speech to Samuel’s farewell speech. Samuel blamed the Israelites for not obeying God and predicted their downfall under the new Monarchy system. Samuel’s countrymen did not stone him but ignored his words but Stephen, they wanted to kill. Perhaps the designation matters, as they felt Samuel was appointed by God and belonged to the family of Levites, whereas Stephen was an untrained Jew who thinks he can teach the Sanhedrin the meaning of the scriptures and the laws. Even today I feel people place more importance on the qualifications of their pastors rather than on their teaching of the word.
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. – Acts 7:54
They either misunderstood what Stephen said or did not even bother to listen to him but they concluded that indeed Stephen had blasphemed. Even the people standing there to execute Stephen, saw that his face appeared to be like that of an angel’s. Yet they rushed at him to drag him outside the city and stone him to death. In his final breath, Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of those who were executing him. The Holy Spirit empowered Stephen with unimaginable gifts but most of all to have compassion for the ones who persecuted him.
Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you – Matthew 5:44
We reserve our blessings and good-wishes for our friends and families but Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us and bless them. Stephen remembered Jesus’ teachings and followed through till his dying breath.
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. – 2 Timothy 12:12
Not only those who are in the fields spreading the Gospel but anyone who wants to live a Godly life will be ridiculed, persecuted or even murdered. So if we are not being persecuted are we confident we are living a Godly life. Are we afraid to go against the tide or do we allow the social waves to direct our lives?