In Acts, after the early church begins to convert thousands of people to the Christian faith in a matter of days, we meet for a brief time a man by the name of Stephen. He has a short introduction in Acts 6:5 and becomes the first martyr for the Christian faith just one chapter later.
Who was this man who has such a brief mention? Why did Stephen become the first martyr for the Christian faith, and what can the church today learn about this saint from the first century?
First of all, who was Stephen?
Although we don’t have much information presented about Stephen in the sixth chapter of Acts, we can derive the following from the text provided.
Acts 6:1-7: As the Apostles’ numbers grew, because of the size, certain people became overlooked, such as the Gentile widows (opposed to the Hebraic widows). Seeing a need to delegate roles, the disciples elected the first seven deacons known to the Christian faith. These deacons had to “be full of wisdom and the Spirit.” These deacons would take charge of the distribution of food to the widows, among other duties. The disciples chose Stephen, and six others, and prayed over them as they began their ministry.
Acts 6:8: Stephen performs various wonders and signs. Throughout the history of the early church, various charismatic gifts such as healing, belonged to several followers of Christ.
He was likely Jewish: Jews, from an early age, memorized portions of the Old Testament. They had a strong knowledge of the Scriptures, as seen in Stephen’s speech featured in Acts 7.
He also had Hellenistic roots: This article from Encyclopedia Britannica says he was a Hellenistic Jew (a foreign-born Jew), which would make sense why the apostles would place him in charge of the distribution of food to the Hellenistic widows. The article above also shows how his Hellenistic and Hebrew upbringing influenced the Apology-like speech he gives to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council. Many Jews grew up outside of Jerusalem due to an event known as the Diaspora.
Why did the Jews want to kill Stephen?
As seen during Jesus’ ministry, whenever someone performs signs in God’s name, opposition often arises. For instance, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Jews seek to kill Lazarus as to dispose of the evidence of God’s work (John 12:9-11).
When Stephen performs great signs and wonders, he draws opposition from a group called the Synagogue of the Freedmen.
This group of Alexandrians and Cyrenians argue with Stephen, but when they cannot create counterarguments to Stephen’s wise retorts, they produce false witnesses who claim Stephen had blasphemed in order to dispose of him and the evidence of God’s work in him.
In a similar fashion to Socrates on trial, Stephen gives a point-by-point rendering of the Old Testament and how it related to Jesus’ work through his death and resurrection. He uses very Jewish examples, but his argument follows a Greek-like argument, similar to the ones used by Plato and Socrates.
He shows how Israelites in the Old Testament failed to see past their stubbornness and turned away from God and persecuted and killed anyone who spoke God’s word (several of the prophets were martyred). In the same way, the Jews had refused to listen to Jesus during his ministry on earth and, instead, killed him when they could no longer stand his words.
This enrages the members of the Sanhedrin, and they order Stephen’s death by stoning—a practice used in the Old Testament to put to death blasphemers and other doers of great acts of evil.
Just before they drag Stephen out of the city to be stoned, he receives a vision of heaven where he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
What does Saint Stephens life and death mean for Christians today?
It may seem odd that a man who receives mention and dies within two chapters of the Bible has a great impact on believers today, but Christians can glean a lot of information from this saint.
First, Stephen shows believers they can have a powerful impact for the kingdom, if even for a short period of time. Although Scripture doesn’t specify how long Stephen’s ministry lasted, it appears he receives opposition very soon into the journey.
Second, no matter where we come from, God can use our past to shape our testimony and witness.
Stephen had both a Hellenistic and Jewish background. This helped him to preach to multiple audiences. He showed to the Sanhedrin he had an immense knowledge of the Scriptures, and through his Greek rhetoric, he had the apologetic power of a speaker like Apollos (Acts 18:24).
We see multiple examples throughout Scripture of how God uses one’s upbringing to shape their testimony and how they speak to various audiences. For instance, Paul was a Jew with a Roman citizenship. This allowed him to speak to both Jewish and Gentile audiences.
Third, and most importantly, Stephen shows us the cost of faith. Preachers often will speak about Stephen because he was the first Christian to die for his beliefs. Whether we live in a country full of religious freedoms or in a restricted area, we may find ourselves in situations where we have the choice to renounce our faith or die for it.
Through Stephen’s example, we can learn to speak boldly for our faith, and know that our lives here on earth cannot compare with the joys we’ll experience in heaven. Man can only kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain/Annibale Carracci
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 400 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog, which receives 63,000+ monthly hits. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released in June, and the sequel “Den” releases July 2020. Find out more about her here.