The First Martyr

Today's Bible reading: Acts 6:1 - 8:3


Stephen was chosen to serve as a deacon to help with the distribution of goods to the poor.  But before long we find this man also involved in the essential task of the church: witnessing to Jesus Christ.  It’s important to note that Luke four times stresses that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit.  As a Greek speaking Jewish Christian, He has the opportunity to witness to Greek speaking Jews in Jerusalem.  Soon, however, he is accused of blasphemy, specifically of attacking the law of Moses and the Temple.

Stephen’s speech takes up almost an entire chapter in ACTS – chapter 7.  Part of the reason for this is his thorough summary of Israel’s history.  However, two themes emerge as well.  God’s dealings with Israel from the days of the patriarchs on were meant to lead Israel to true worship.  But Israel rejected even Moses – its greatest God-given leader.  Again, instead of keeping to the true worship of God, the people turn to false worship.  It is Stephen’s accusers who - together with the whole people - stand accused of rejecting Moses and true worship.  Stephen concludes his lengthy sermon saying: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.  As your fathers did, so do you.  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, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”  By rejecting Moses, the people reject God.  Israel’s continuing refusal to follow God ended in their dismissal of God’s Son.  However, the Good News for us is that Jesus took upon Himself the sins of all people, that we would be reconciled to God the Father.  In Holy Baptism, He gives us new hearts and pours out His Spirit for us.

Stephen is stoned to death for proclaiming the good news … and in his final moments we are reminded of our Lord’s own final moments.  Stephen suffered at the hand of unjust judges who have to use false witnesses.  Above all, He prays for His persecutors as Jesus had done.  He sees in death the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand in glory – not sitting.  His Lord has already risen from His seat to welcome the martyr home!

The account of this first martyrdom ends with the brief reference to a certain Saul who was witness to this event.  Luke subtly hints at the truth that this death - and the scattering of the Christians which follows - was the beginning of even wider witness in the future.  Death lead to greater life – for people way beyond Jerusalem, including you and me!  

Prayer: Lord, may we, like Stephen, never falter when under attack for You.  Amen.