3 Key Takeaways from Stephen the Martyr’s Final Sermon

3 Key Takeaways from Stephen the Martyr’s Final Sermon

The book of Acts is full of inspiring moments from the early church after the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. It also emphasizes the struggles of the early church, and it seems that every day a new form of suffering is heaped upon them. The first martyr of the faith, as recorded in the Bible is Stephen.

He was from a Hellenistic, or Greek background and was ordained as one of the first deacons. Stephen served the widows of the church, and after being seized and brought before Jewish leaders, he delivered the sermon that led the people to stone him.

This sermon is good for seeing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the lens of the Old Testament, understanding God’s plan through the Hebrew people and the nation of Israel, and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Stephen’s sermon was powerful at the time, and continues to resonate with believers today.

Let’s take a look at the different points Stephen made in this important sermon.

An Original Promise

Stephen’s sermon begins before the nation of Israel existed, in Mesopotamia. He walks his audience through the parts of the Pentateuch related to the creation of the nation of Israel and God’s covenants with their people.

Abram was from Ur, and his fathers worshipped false gods. God made a covenant with Abram, re-named him Abraham, and promised him land for all his children, even though he had none. Stephen emphasized, “And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs” (Acts 7:8).

Circumcision was one of the ways the descendants of Abraham followed the Law and marked themselves as set apart from other people groups.

God’s People Led into Egypt

The next point in Israel’s history that Stephen addresses is how the sons of Abraham ended up in Egypt and how God used the sins of 11 of Jacob’s sons to preserve their entire family. 

The 11 jealous brothers sold their father’s favorite son, Joseph, into slavery in Egypt. Through this evil, “Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph's family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all” (Acts 7:11-14).

God preserved His people through a famine by moving them to another country. Of course, as both Stephen’s audience then and readers today know, the descendants of Israel were eventually oppressed in Egypt.

The Days of Moses

After centuries of slavery in Egypt, God sent the nation of Israel Moses to free them. However, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven, as it is written in the book of the prophets” (Acts 7:39-42). In Stephen’s sermon, he uses the incident with the golden calf to demonstrate how the Hebrew people were beginning to tend towards stubbornness, their hearts hardening towards God.

Other Significant Leaders

As he began to approach the end of his sermon, Stephen talks about significant leaders in the history of the nation of Israel, and how God used them – and the nation itself – to fulfill His will.

“Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David,  who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him” (Acts 7:44-47).

Despite these men of God pursuing the Lord, they fell short of His glory, and the nation of Israel did not pursue its role as the shining city on a hill.

3 Themes Found in Stephen’s Sermon


In his sermon, Stephen addressed the institution of circumcision, and how it was meant to be both a symbol of the Israelite’s separation from the world, and their submission to the Law. Over time, the Israelites began to put their faith not in God, but in the power of being a circumcised descendent of Abraham. They set themselves above the Gentiles, rather than reaching out to them to show them their need for the one true God. Stephen accused his listeners of being “uncircumcised in heart and ears” (Acts 7:51b) They did not know and love the Lord, and were not interested in His Word. They could not recognize the Messiah, though many of them lived through His ministry, His death, and His resurrection.

Paul, who was present at Stephen’s stoning, would later pick up on this idea. “For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical” (Romans 2:25-28). Stephen was trying to communicate to his audience their physical circumcision was not enough to save them.

God’s Power to Preserve and Keep His Word

The nation of Israel came through trials and tribulations over and over again, but God made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and He later made promises to David. Despite the sins of Israel and the power of the nations surrounding them, God upheld His people. His covenants were kept, and He led his people through calamity. Despite God’s steadiness and faithfulness, the nation of Israel would cling to their sin. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:52).

Stephen contrasted God’s love with Israel’s infidelity.

Stubbornness and Pride

All people have a tendency toward stubbornness and pride, but in light of the recent resurrection of the Messiah, providing salvation to the Jews and the Gentiles, the refusal of the Israelite people to accept Jesus seemed particularly hard-hearted.

In this sermon, Stephen highlighted how God was always good to them, and was always trying to communicate His will to the nation of Israel, but they lost sight of that love and will. He cuttingly charged them, “You stiff-necked people…you always resist the Holy Spirit…you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:53). Stephen highlighted that they had the Law, unlike every other people group and nation, and refused to obey it, often resisting the Lord to their own detriment.

What We Can Learn from Stephen’s Sermon Today

Though Stephen’s primary audience when he spoke these words was to a hostile Jewish audience, there are still things believers can take away from this sermon today.

1. Obey the Prompting of the Holy Spirit

One of the last points that Stephen made before God gave him a vision of Heaven was that the Jewish people were not listening to the prompting or conviction of the Holy Spirit. By this point, thousands of ethnic and religious Jews heard the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and put their faith in Him. Yet thousands refused to hear and accept the truth.

When the Spirit convicts, guides, moves, or whispers to someone’s heart, it is important to listen. The Holy Spirit wants to facilitate a relationship between a person and the Lord, to guide, to comfort, and to save.

2. Remember God Has Always Kept His Word, and Never Fails

Part of Stephen’s sermon was to highlight that God was always faithful to the nation of Israel. The Lord loves each person, and wants everyone to have a relationship with Him. God promises to forgive the sins of those who turn to Him in faith and repentance, and to give them the gift of eternal life. Once someone is saved, God will always take care of those He holds, and will give them the strength to endure to the end, just like He did with Stephen.

3. It Is Important to Know God’s Word

Stephen, though he was a Jew from a Hellenistic background, was well-versed in the Law and the Prophets. Because of his familiarity with God’s word, in partnership with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, his audience could not substantively argue with him. When the Bible says that believers should be ready to give an account, knowing the Bible well can be a good help. It also helps encourage, instruct, and edify the Christian.

Stephen preached bravely and suffered martyrdom because of it. While many believers will not have to experience that struggle, thousands across the globe do. Stephen’s life, his words, and his death can be an encouragement for his brothers and sisters in Christ today who want to understand God, or need encouragement in the face of true adversity.


Bruce, F.F. The Book of Acts Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishings Co., 1988.

Matthews, Shelly. Perfect Martyr The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Walvoord, John F. and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Seminary Old Testament and New Testament. United States of America: Victor Books, 1987.

Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Boonchai Wedmakawand

Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.