-THE FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR-A.D.33-
Stephen, a disciple full of The Holy Spirit, was one of the
first deacons in the Jerusalem Church and was the first Christian martyr.
He was taken by the Jewish Authorities and stoned to death for believing
that Jesus of Nazareth was The Christ, Son of God. The story of Stephen
is in Acts chapter 6,7 and 8.
His martyrdom and persecution is recorded in Acts chapters 11 and 22.
Stephen’s personal name means, “crown”. His birth place is unknown but he could speak both Aramaic and Greek fluently. Stephen was his Greek name. He was a quick thinker, an academic and a server. Stephen was foremost of those chosen to bring peace to the growing church. He was full of The Holy Spirit and of wisdom, and was chosen to be a deacon, as was the evangelist Philip, to take mundane tasks from the Twelve Apostles so that they could focus on the matter of studying, teaching and preaching the Word of God about Christ. Believers had been filled and empowered by The Holy Spirit that Jesus had sent at Pentecost, 50 days after His resurrection and they began to preach boldly this truth and about Jesus’ Ascension and Glorification. This angered many Jewish Priests and officials. The Christians were socially ostracised. Families had cut members from amongst them and out of this, the outcasts became needy.
During the two year period following, the number of Christians had grown steadily. The Apostles had to appoint seven men to handle the work of providing aid to the needy Grecian Christian widows as the murmuring for help came from the Greek speaking segment of the church, who perhaps mainly lived in communal groups. Stephen was one of those good and worthy men. The Apostles ordained these men in their newly appointed tasks. Stephen had hands laid upon him as he was blessed for his commission. He was the leader of the group of deacons and was appointed the administrator.
God had placed Stephen in a significant position, serving Christ by serving others. He prepared him for greater responsibility.
Stephen came to prominence in the early Christian Church at Jerusalem because of being chosen to take responsibility since he was honourable. As a reputable Christian, he was deeply involved with the growth movement of the Church.
He also was a powerful preacher, a man of faith who knew God’s Word. He was full of love and courage. His messages of preaching were accompanied by forceful demonstrations of God’s power by The Holy Spirit. This gave him remarkable credibility.
Stephen’s ministry brought him great favour but also engaged him in bitter conflict with Judaizers. They could not conquer his mastery and understanding of the Scriptures during debates about Old Testament Scripture of History, Moses and the Prophets of Israel. So mighty in the Scriptures as an evangelist was Stephen, that his Jewish opponents in debate could not refute him as he argued from Scripture that Jesus was the Messiah. He became well known as a preacher and God used him to do many miracles and wonders. Conservative Jewish sources were jealous of Stephen’s popularity and sought to undermine his work.
As the church grew, Stephen evangelised at synagogues more and more about Christ very skilfully amongst those still believing in traditional rites, but this brought him into conflict with powerful leaders.
Stephen’s position was important, his preaching of the Scriptures showed that Christianity and Judaism are two different religions. Stephen spoke from the Jewish Scriptures. When Stephen evangelised he always turned the Scriptures to Jesus. Stephen knew that the Old Law was not compatible with the New Law of Grace.
Members of some Jewish synagogues felt that Stephen blasphemed God and the prophet Moses. They accused him of being disloyal to the Jewish faith for he had been critical of the system of the Old Testament Laws and of blasphemy against The Temple at Jerusalem, blasphemy against Moses and God as well as The Law. These were similar to the charges brought against Jesus by the same people.
After mobilising false witnesses Stephen was arrested and brought before the Jewish councll, the Sanhedrin. These men had him appear before the Jewish High Priest and judges during which time he "had the face of an angel".
Stephen did not defend himself before the Sanhedrin, he did however use the opportunity to summarise how the Scriptures point to Jesus being the Messiah and accused the religious leaders for being blind and that God has built His Temple. Although he recognised the importance of The Temple, he knew that it was not more important than God. Stephen accused his jealous rivals also of corrupting the laws that they had been given and explained how the Scriptures revealed that all creation is the Temple, God Himself had made.
Stephen, in his speech to The Jewish Council, which is the longest recorded amongst the early Christians, analysed the Old Testament teaching of God’s guidance and reviewed Israel’s history that became a criticism of the Sanhedrin in which he accused the council itself of resisting The Holy Spirit.
There were seventy-one judges and secretaries who wrote trying to keep the pace of Stephen’s speech. At the court there were also the lawyers, teachers and new candidates for the Sanhedrin. They were spellbound by his grasp of Jewish history in answer to the charges made against him. They could see he was sincere as he expressed God’s words.
Stephen had preached an examination of Old Testament history with the aspect of the coming of Christ. Admiration gave way to annoyance. Stephen enraged the council so they “gnashed at him with their teeth” as he saw a vision of Heaven with Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen saw the glory of God and Jesus as the Messiah. His vision angered the Jewish Leaders who had also condemned Jesus to death. A frenzied crowd would not accept that Stephen saw a vision of Christ in Heaven.
Their rejection of Jesus was the rejection of Their Messiah. He accused his audience of betraying and murdering Christ.
The mob of people rushed upon him and dragged him away and brutally stoned him to death illegally because the penalty was not sanctioned by Roman Rule. As he was asking God to forgive them for doing so, Stephen commended his spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Saul (later named Paul) of Tarsus heard Stephen’s speech to the Jewish Sanhedrin accusing the Jewish leaders of rejecting God’s way as their forefathers had. Saul held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death, he stood there giving approval of the killing of Stephen even though he saw him die a victorious death. The first Christian martyrdom. Saul was to become the Christian's enemy.
God used Stephen's situation to lead the church in a greater direction. The killing of the first Christian was followed by a wave of persecution that forced disciples in great number to flee from the City of Jerusalem to the outlying areas. This scattering led to the preaching and spreading of The Gospel of Christ, first to the Samaritans, then to non-Jews in the communities that surrounded the Jewish Nation. Only the apostles and some prominent believers remained there.
The Jewish authorities continued to embark on a programmed suppression of faith in Jesus. Believers were imprisoned and many were killed. The believers scattered, the situation was beyond their control, fulfilling The Great Commission commanded by Jesus.
Stephen had great courage in facing his opponents. He lived, suffered and died for Christ. Stephen was zealous for God, had ministry to both Jews and non-Jews; he was well-learned in Scripture and a Great Evangelist. He was a man who had biblical balance. A faithful disciple, effective preacher and honourable worker as well as being a noble martyr.
The faithful disciple was murdered by those who were obstinate and opposed Christ. Stephen was the only the disciple to call Jesus The Son of Man a title that Jesus liked to call Himself. Stephen’s final words of forgiveness showed how much he had come to be like His Saviour.
Stephen was in the forefront of those who helped Christianity follow the commission to carry the gospel to the whole world and led to the founding of the world mission movement that took the gospel to the whole Roman Empire in the first century.
His life challenges all Christians constantly because he was the first Christian martyr, the first to die for defending the Truth of Christ.
Christians are able to keep honouring God by their living and their words, though it may gain enemies as they perhaps do not want to hear the truth, but it can also turn others to have trust and belief in Christ as their Saviour.
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