Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
July 14, 1949
NUMBER 10, PAGE 2,6b

Stephen --- The Protomartyr

Paul L. Wallace, Denison, Texas

Of the thousands of men whose names were written in the Book of Life during the early years of the church, and who meant so much to the growth of the kingdom as they went everywhere preaching the word, we know very little. Our study in this article is of one of these men, known for a moment only as he steps into the light of history, and yet one of the greatest and most influential of the early disciples. Our insight into the greatness of this first martyr is derived almost solely from the record of one speech and one day—the last sermon he ever preached—the last day of his mortal life. And yet his faith and courage were in no small measure responsible for the fidelity of the early Christians when the great persecution of the church came after his stoning.

His Selection As A Deacon

The first hurried view that the reader of the book of Acts has of Stephen deeply impresses one with his excellent character. The Jerusalem church was handling one of its vexing problems by selecting seven men to care for the widows in the congregation. These men were to be of "good report", to have a good name within the church and with fair-minded men outside of the church; they were to be "full of the Spirit", probably meaning full of the Spirit as respects the fruit of a holy life; they were to be "full of wisdom", that is, have that good common judgment that enables a man to oversee complicated affairs of business. Stephen was one of the men appointed over this business; therefore even in this passing appearance the reader learns that he was a true man of God.

His Debate With The Libertines

But his time was not wholly spent in ministering to the needy widows, for we read, "And Stephen, full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people. But there arose certain of them that were of the synagogue called the synagogue of the Libertines, and the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen". (Acts 6:8, 9) Here was a war of arguments on the great theme of the "Messiah". Never, perhaps, since the establishment of the church had there been such a protracted discussion between capable debaters. For the first time as far as one is able to determine, the disciples encountered the forces of Judaism in open combat. One can imagine the apprehension of the members of the church as they listened to Stephen and his foes. Will he be able to meet the arguments? Will his proofs stand under their rebuttals? Any anxiety they may have had was soon dispelled. "And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and Spirit by which he spake." Silence, if not assent, was produced.

Defeated in debate, these Hellenists used methods that were better calculated to maintain their upper hand. "And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and seized him, and brought him into the council, and set up false witnesses... "

His Trial And Speech

The mock trial was held before this solemn council of seventy men, men who were selected because of attainments rather than by political manipulation, and yet men who were so stirred up that they were keeping only the letter of the law and not the spirit of it. One can hardly imagine the passion which maddened this whole assembly. Stephen, however, was permitted to make his defense, and they must surely have been discomfited when they "saw his face as it had been the face of a angel".

The sermon that followed was skilful and convincing; that is, it would have been convincing to men who were not steeped in centuries of prejudice. The audacity of his final denunciation, "Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit", added to the anger of the crowd, and turned the solemn Sanhedrin into a mob of murderers Judges, prosecutors, witnesses, and spectators "rushed upon him with one accord".

His Death

"Now when they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth... But they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and rushed upon him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city, and stoned him."

"But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked a stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God... And they stoned Stephen calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord; lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep."

Contrast, if you will, the action of the accusers with the words and hearing of Stephen in this hour of his death. Stephen's scathing invective affected them as if he had laid them across the sawhorses and had begun to say them in two; they were "cut to the heart", literally, "sawn asunder"; they were men turned to brute beasts gnashing and grinding their teeth, crying aloud, stopping their ears.

But the storm of righteous indignation and son that had hurled the thunderbolt into their faces has passed, and note the calmness of the death of this first martyr, as the calm returns after the storm. As if appealing any injustice to the great Court of Heaven, "he looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God Where the usual attitude of Jesus is "sitting" at the right hand of God, Jesus is "standing", as if to witness the death of his faithful follower. Stephen said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit". His was a death of faith, of certainty. No gloom or doubt about the future life troubled him, for he had seen Jesus; his death was not trembling leap into the dark by one who had no hope. In the midst of violence, noise, and tumult, with stones pelting his body, a prayer of forgiveness is offered up behalf of his tormentors. And saying this, he "fell asleep".

Had you observed that the Bible teaches the doctrine of immortality not only by direct precept, but by example as well? In this instance one who had the full use of his faculties, one who had just preached one of the great sermons of all time, before he was rushed out of the city to be stoned, said, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God". Note his assurance, his confidence!

The death of this good man must have given fortitude to the Jerusalem disciples during the persecution that followed. The world had learned that faith in Christ would cause men to be courageous, but they now learn that this intrepidity, founded on the sincere belief in Jesus, would not fail even in the face of violent death. How many of them must have remembered Stephen when they were confronted with the decision to either renounce Jesus, or suffer! Perhaps even the one who held the garments of those who stoned him remembered, when about thirty years later he also was called upon to die for his Lord.

His Burial

"And devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him". What a great funeral service!" Loving brethren laid his body to rest until the great resurrection day, and his spirit returned to God who gave it.