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The Martyrdom of Stephen

Acts  6:8 - 7:60

We come now to one of the great difficulties – and great glories – of the church: martyrdom. They crucified Christ, the Master. Somehow his servants feel that they should now be exempt. It is not so:

(Acts 6:8-15 NIV) Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. {9} Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)--Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, {10} but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. {11} Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." {12} So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. {13} They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. {14} For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us." {15} 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 7 NIV) Then the high priest asked him, "Are these charges true?" {2} To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. {3} 'Leave your country and your people,' God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.' … [Next verses omitted to save space] …{51} "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! {52} Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him-- {53} you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." {54} When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. {55} 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. {56} "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." {57} At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, {58} dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. {59} While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." {60} 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.

There are three actors in this drama, and we shall examine each of them in turn. First, the crowd.

The Crowd

Concept of Collective Responsibility

A few years ago, in New York City, a woman named Kitty Genovese was raped and brutally murdered. This would have gone unnoticed by the world at large except for one thing: it was done entirely within the sight of hundreds of onlookers leaning out of their apartment windows. Not one of them called the police, let alone attempted to help her.

Picture yourself as one of those who watched. Do you think your conscience would rest easily by saying to yourself, “I thought someone else would call the police?” Or, “what could I do?” I think not. I suspect that those who watched bear the guilt yet today.

We, as Americans, like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists. We deny the concept of collective responsibility – but it exists nonetheless. If you think not, consider this: suppose you joined the Ku Klux Klan (God forbid). It is not illegal to join the Klan; just joining is not harmful to someone else – but is it not sinful? To join such a group with such principles declares you to be someone committed to a gospel of hatred. Is that not sin?

Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York in the 1930’s, used to go down to the night courts and sit as a judge on occasion. One evening a grandmother was brought before him on the charge that she had stolen a loaf of bread. She explained that she had charge of her grandchild, and stole the bread so that the child would have something to eat. LaGuardia reluctantly sentenced her to a ten dollar fine (which he paid out of his own pocket). He then sentenced everyone in the courtroom to a 25 cent fine – “for living in a city where a grandmother has to steal bread to feed her grandchild” – and gave the money to the woman. People of that era would have recognized the justice of that fine. It is still just; we simply refuse to recognize it.

Greater knowledge, greater guilt

What makes this account all the more tragic is the greater knowledge of this crowd. They are Jews, the people to whom God has given the revelation of his plan and purpose. Greater knowledge brings greater guilt. But does this apply to us today?

·         God does post warning signs – he sends preachers and prophets. America as a nation has been favored with the blessing of God – if we will just look back and see it.

·         Even if we ignore our past, is it not the duty of any honest man to find the truth?

·         Is it not the case that we say we “can’t tell the righteous from the Pharisee” when in fact we, as a nation, can – but won’t and don’t?

Greater evidence, greater stumble

There is a recurring myth among Christians: if I only saw a miracle, or if I only saw Christ in the flesh… Consider those who did see miracles and those who did see Him in the flesh. These also were the heirs of the prophets. How did they respond?

·         Some concluded that since God had blessed them so mightily they must indeed be especially worthy (despite what God told them). If you are rich, you are blessed. If you are blessed, it is by God’s doing. Does God bless the unworthy? (Actually, greatly so. His rain is upon the just and the unjust).

·         Some took collective responsibility and turned it into collective righteousness. “I am a Jew; God will see only merit in me, because I am one of the chosen people.” Are you righteous because your parents are righteous? Having a righteous ancestor only increases your responsibility, not your favor.

·         Some of us have concluded that because of our good deeds God will consider us righteous. We have it backwards.

The closer you are to God’s truth, the more you need to act upon it. And the greater the sin if you do not.


Little is known of Stephen other than what is written in Acts. But there are certain things about him which may serve as a model for us;

The life prepared

So many of us subscribe to the fallacy that “if a great moment came along, I would rise to the occasion.” We forget the coach’s motto: “You play like you practice.” Stephen practiced when he was distributing food to widows; the great moment came and he was ready.

Our Lord tells us much the same thing. He says that if we are faithful in small things, we will be faithful in big things. Character counts. The question for most of us is not, “How shall I handle this grand moment in my spiritual life?” but rather, “What shall I do in this small moment?” If you cannot be trusted in small things, who will give you charge over large things?

The ready defense

It is fairly obvious from the length of Stephen’s defense that he is a man who had studied the Scriptures. From this he has produced a ready defense of the faith. He was prepared.

In particular, his preparation points along one line: that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the Messiah, the “Anointed One,” the “Holy One of Israel.” Jesus is the culmination of the Old Testament, and Stephen was ready to bring the Scriptures to witness to this. Would that we were so prepared.

Attitude towards death and dying

Courage is the root of all virtue. Just by stepping up to the speaker’s platform Stephen has shown a good deal of it. What is more, he has shown us his attitude towards death and dying: he thinks it of little importance. He is much more concerned with his murderers’ forgiveness than he is with his own death! That attitude lasted a long time in the church. Witness this passage from Athanasius, over two hundred years later:

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death, they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as something dead. Before the divine advent of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. There is proof of this too; for men who, before they believe in Christ, think death horrible and are afraid of it, once they are converted despise it so completely that they go eagerly to meet it, and themselves become witnesses of the Savior's resurrection from it. Even children hasten thus to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing, robbed of all its strength. Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, "O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?"

(Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, V-27)

If we do not have this attitude, it can hardly be the fault of old Athanasius. Men do not die for a lie – or something they believe weakly. Stephen understood this point quite clearly.

The beauty of holiness

There is one last thing we may learn from Stephen: it is the beauty of holiness. In our own time we have seen the works of Mother Teresa and admired her for them. Why? Holiness has its own beauty, one which is not in appearance. We recognize, despite the cynicism of our age, that beauty. It is the glow of God – like Moses coming down from the mountain – shining through a human being. Stephen shows it here. As Christ on the Cross begged his Father to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing, so Stephen here asks that the Father would not hold this sin against them. It is an act of beautiful holiness.


It might seem that there is much to say about Stephen in this passage and little to say about Christ. But there is one very key observation to make. It is this: here, and here alone in the Bible, Christ is pictured as standing at the right hand of the Father. Elsewhere he is seated.

The importance of being seated cannot be overstated. It implies that Christ is equal with the Father (who sits in the presence of the King?) But here he is pictured as standing. Why?

·         He is our Advocate. Think of it this way: in our courtrooms, the judge and jury are seated – but the attorneys, the advocates, rise to present their cases. It is just so here; Christ is pleading as Advocate. In this instance he is pleading (at Stephen’s request) that the sin not be laid against those murderers. He can also be seen as pleading for Stephen. And in general, we need to see him as pleading for us.

·         He is our High Priest. In this instance, he is bringing before Almighty God a sacrifice – the blood of a martyr. Much is made of this in Revelation, where the blood of martyrs is said to cry out from under the altar of God. But do remember the picture of the Old Testament: the High Priest presents the sacrifices for sin and atonement, and as he does, he must stand. There are no chairs in the Temple.

·         Another picture that would be easily understood in that day, especially by the Greeks, was that of the Umpire. (I am indebted to St. Ambrose for the point). In those days, the umpire of a wrestling match would stand as he watched the match – and would present the victor’s crown to the winner. In just the same way Christ stands to present the victor’s crown of life to Stephen, as to all who overcome.


If there would be three things I would have you take away today, these would be my thoughts:

·         We are responsible in some degree for our society. We cannot close our eyes and say, “Not my fault, not my problem.”

·         Holiness proceeds from within; if you are faithful in little things, then God may indeed trust you with much.

·         Praise God for the gift of his Son: our Advocate, our High Priest and the Rewarder of our lives.

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