by Wayne Blank
"I persecuted this Way [see The Way] to the death, binding and delivering to Prison both men and women, as the high priest and the whole council of elders bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brethren, and I journeyed to Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished ... And when the blood of Stephen thy witness [see Martyrs] was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.'" (Acts 22:4-5,20 RSV)
In Bible History, Stephen was a man of "firsts." He was one of the first seven Christian deacons, and he is generally regarded as the first Christian martyr.
"Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, "It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word." And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch."
There was no doubt as to Stephen's exceptionally good character, and the miraculous power that he had been given by God. It's interesting to note that although Stephen was "just" a deacon, he certainly had gifts and powers from God that were at least equal to that of the apostles:
"And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6:8 RSV)
As had happened with Jesus Christ Himself, Stephen soon found himself in difficulty with the local religious authorities, not because he was doing anything wrong, but because he was seen as a serious and growing threat to their misguided control over the people. They just couldn't "compete" with him:
"they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke." (Acts 6:10 RSV)
They then resorted to the "low as you can go" approach; they had him falsely accused of blasphemy - and in knowingly doing so, they themselves blasphemed the Holy Spirit, which was actually the source of Stephen's wisdom:
"Then they secretly instigated men, who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God ... and set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth [see Nazarene] will destroy this place, and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us." (Acts 6:11,13-14 RSV)
Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin where more false accusations were made. While the despicable lies were being spewed at him, Stephen remained calm:
"And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel." (Acts 6:15 RSV)
Stephen was then allowed to make his "defense." By then, he probably knew full well that he was not going to get out of there alive, so he held nothing back out of concern to not offend people that he would otherwise have been gently, tactfully and systematically leading to the Truth, point by point, day by day - had time permitted. The result was one of the most direct, unpolitical, and beautifully logical historical and theological discourses in The Holy Bible. It's found in its entirety in Acts chapter 7. Every word that he spoke was the Truth, which of course only made his accusers, who were self-righteous Hypocrites, hate him all the more. His words of Truth turned them from a pack of petty liars into a raving lynch mob (Acts 7:54).
Stephen was dragged out of the city, where they began stoning him. To keep their clothes from becoming splattered with Stephen's blood during the murder, they "laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:58 RSV) - to which Saul, later known as Paul, confessed, as written in the opening paragraph.
Stephen remained strong and true to the very end, his faith never waivering:
"And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep (see What Happens When You Die?)" (Acts 7:59-60 RSV)
Stephen's last words were to ask God that his murderers be forgiven, including among them, Saul the Pharisee, who, after his later conversion, became known as the apostle Paul, and went on to become one the greatest Christians that ever lived, a man who wrote a large part of the New Testament - until he too was martyred for preaching the very same Truth for which he had Stephen martyred.
Fact Finder: Throughout history, God's servants were almost always martyred without any resistance on their part. Will however Christ's end-time two witnesses be very different? Will they have the God-commanded authority, and great miraculous power, to defend themselves against anything, until their ministry has been completed?