First Martyr

Under the guidance of the Spirit, and in fulfillment of Scripture, Stephen gave eloquent and effective testimony to the leaders of Israel

Rock Pile - Photo by Emily Campbell on Unsplash
Early on, the church experienced conflicts between its Greek and Aramaic-speaking members over the care of widows. In response, the apostles instructed the community to select from among its members seven men “
full of the Spirit and wisdom” to take charge of the matter, including a man named Stephen, who was “full of faith and the Spirit.” - [Photo by Emily Campbell on Unsplash].

Just prior to his ascension, Jesus instructed the fledgling church in Jerusalem to tarry until they received the Holy Spirit, then they would become his “witnesses, both in Jerusalem and Judea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.” The Greek term rendered “witnesses” is martus, not coincidentally, the very word from which the English noun “martyr” is derived.

Stephen was “full of grace and power, and wrought great wonders and signs among the people,” just as predicted in Joel’s prophecy - “In the last days, I will pour out My Spirit… And I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath” – (Acts 2:17-21, 6:9-15).

But rather quickly, Stephen found himself confronted by certain leaders from the local synagogue, for they were “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Therefore, they suborned perjury from certain “witnesses” who claimed that Stephen had slandered the Temple and the law of Moses, then hauled him before the Sanhedrin for examination, though already his condemnation was a foregone conclusion.

In response to the charges, Stephen recounted the history of how God summoned Abraham out of Mesopotamia, delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, brought the nation to Sinai, some of the sins committed by the Israelites, and the design given by Yahweh for the Tabernacle. Along the way, in a fit of disobedience, the Israelites compelled Aaron to erect a “golden calf” to which they offered sacrifices and worship – “And they rejoiced in the works of their own hands.” From that incident, in the Hebrew Bible, the term “made-with-hands” effectively became a euphemism for idolatry – (Isaiah 2:8-9, 44:9-20).

Despite her punishment over the incident with the “golden calf,” Israel continued in idolatry even after the construction of the Tabernacle and the later Temple in Jerusalem, even up until the nation was exiled to Babylon. And in Stephen’s day, many Jews harbored an idolatrous attitude toward the Temple, pointing to it as evidence of God’s favor and His election of the Jewish people.

But according to Stephen, the “Most-High does not dwell in houses made-with-hands,” a deliberate dig at his opponents and their veneration of the Temple. By employing the term “made-with-hands,” he insinuated their continuing involvement in idolatry. And there was irony in his words, for while the Almighty does not dwell in temples “made-with-hands,” His Spirit certainly did dwell in Stephen, as his eloquence and wisdom demonstrated that very day – (Acts 7:42-53).

He concluded his defense by charging the representatives of the nation of Israel with “always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did.” Despite having received the law, including its instructions for constructing and administering the Tabernacle, habitually, they had persecuted the prophets and committed the worst of all offenses by murdering the Messiah.


Predictably, the Temple authorities did not respond well to his words – “
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart and gnashed on him with their teeth.” Remarkably, Stephen, “being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,” after which his opponents stoned him to death, making him the first martyr for Jesus - (Acts 7:54-60).

Consistently in this story, Stephen is described as “full of the Holy Spirit,” and it was the Spirit that gave him the wisdom to answer his accuser with boldness and words they could neither “gainsay nor resist,” just as Jesus promised. When his disciple found themselves before rulers and magistrates, the Spirit would provide them with the “words and wisdom” needed to bear “witness” before them – (Mark 13:11, Luke 21:15).

Stephen’s witness was a manifestation of the promise from Joel’s prophecy. With the outpouring of the Spirit, “My servants and handmaidens will prophesyAnd I will show wonders in the heaven above.” And that is what Stephen did when, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he spoke prophetic words as a testimony to the leaders of Israel. And his vision of Jesus “sitting at the right hand of God” was just such a “wonder in the heaven above.”

Moreover, his witness before the Jewish leaders was an answer to the earlier prayer of the church in reaction to opposition from the priestly authorities – “Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” – (Acts 4:29).

Thus, in the Book of Acts, and in fulfillment of Scripture, it is the Spirit that guides and empowers the church to execute its mission to bear “witness” to the “uttermost parts of the earth,” beginning at Jerusalem, and including testimony before the leaders of the Jewish people. And under the Spirit’s leading, even the judicial murder of Stephen became the perfect opportunity to testify before the nation rather than a defeat for the church.



Kingdom Parables

Responding to Persecutors