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Stephen

the Martyr
Darrin E. Brogan

ID #21912
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A look at Acts

chapters 6 & 7
Before we can talk about the first Christian martyr Stephen, we need to define what a

martyr actually is. The word martyr is derived from the Greek word μά ρτυς (martus, mar’-toos)

meaning “a witness” who can assert what they themselves have both seen and heard. When

Jesus mentioned we would receive power from the Holy Ghost and that we would be his

witnesses in Acts 1:8; he was using this same Greek word. Therefore one may conclude that a

believer is baptized with the Holy Spirit so that they may become martyrs for Christ. This same

Greek word μά ρτυς is again used in Acts 22:20 and is translated; “… the blood of thy martyr

Stephen…” in the KJV then also as; “…the blood of Stephen thy witness…” in the ASV. Both

translations are correct and demonstrate the interchangeability of the definition of the word.

Martyr is a stronger use of the word witness and simply implies by analogy how far one is

willing to go in their witness or testimony for the Lord. By this we establish that a martyr is
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simply a witness and that death is the consequence which that witness is willing to accept for

their testimony, should it be required of them.

So who is Stephen? God places great importance on the names of men and women

throughout the bible. Stephen is no exception; his Grecian name means “crown”; and he was the

first to receive the crown of martyrdom. This cannot be passed off as coincidence since we

know that every name, place and detail in scripture is given by design. Stephen was the

protomartyr or first martyr of the New Testament as mentioned in Acts 22:20. He had been

acting more like an apostle than a deacon. He was the first great Christian ecclesiastic; “the

Archdeacon,” as he is called in the Eastern Church. Smiths Bible Dictionary says about him:

“He was the forerunner of St. Paul the apostle. Stephen was the anticipator, as, had he lived, he

would have been the propagator of the new phase of Christianity for which St. Paul became the

main support.” Stephen’s anti-judaistic speech and foreign name indicate that he was a Hellenist

or Greek speaking foreign Jew who would have lived outside of Palestine as opposed to a home

born Hebrew speaking Jew. Stephen could therefore relate intimately with the men who were

accusing him for they too were Hellenist’s. His Hellenistic life away from any regular access to

the temple and its rites had prepared Stephen to be less dependant upon them and readier to

comprehend as well as accept the gospel’s freedom from legal bonds. After his death by stoning

a group of devout proselytes, a class related to the Hellenists to whom Stephen belonged, carried

him to his burial and made great lamentation over him in honor of his life and witness.

Why then was Stephen stoned to death, when after all, it was against Roman law for Jews

to execute judgment them selves? Roman authority alone had the power of life and death. It

was Stephen’s faith in the Messiah Jesus that was under attack. One may remain silent when

under attack for anything else, but to remain silent while your faith is mocked could be
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considered treason against the Savior who bought us with his blood in sacrifice on the cross.

Stephen stood before the council accused by false witnesses. He had been accused of speaking

against Moses, against God, against the temple and against the law. His speech before the

council proved their accusations false and before he finished his testimony, the accused became

the accuser; the one who was to be judged became their judge. Stephen had shown that Jesus

fulfilled the law while setting aside that part of its letter which was designed only to continue

until he could do so. The prophets similarly had foretold the superseding of the legal types and

the temple by the Antitype (Jer. 7:4; Jer. 31:31-34) who would be the Messiah. The point of

Stephen’s argument was that God’s dealings with his chosen people pointed to those very

changes which he was accused of having promoted. The history of the Jewish nation had

undergone repeated changes. Stephen pointed out to the council that there was a change under

Abraham (Acts 7:2-8). There was a change under Joseph (Acts 7:9-16). There was a change

under Moses (Acts 7:17-44) and there was a change under David (Acts 7:45-46). Stephen was

not guilty of any open heresy; the accusers were implying other meanings into what Stephen

taught in order to find him guilty of their charges. Albert Barne’s Notes on the Bible tells us that

the Syriac text reads Acts 6:11 like this; “Then they sent certain men and instructed them that

they should say…” Clearly scripture indicates that the accusations brought against Stephen were

cautiously calculated indictments arranged to secure a conviction in the event that the defendant

would not concede or compromise with the council in his rebuttal to their charges. The religious

leaders of the Jewish community did not want change in their religious system, especially not

change that proved their guilt in the murder of God’s Son, Jesus, the awaited Messiah.

Stephen addresses the accusations brought against him. He secures the attention of the

council by giving a lengthy recitation of their nation’s history; a topic the religious leaders loved
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to hear and talk about. He begins by pointing out that in their nations past history God’s

revelation of himself to man had not been confined to the land of Israel and the temple.

Abraham had enjoyed God’s revelation in Mesopotamia, Haran and Canaan before he ever

possessed any of the land God promised him. Israel and Moses experienced God in the foreign

lands of Egypt, Midian and Sinai, which was therefore holy ground (Acts 7:33) and in the

wilderness 40 years. Stephen goes on to say that from the very beginning of their proud history

the Jews had failed to recognize their true friends. Stephen charged that they were keeping suit

with tradition in this matter by rejecting the Messiah and his ministers. The brothers had rejected

Joseph, the Israelites rejected Moses (Acts 7:9; Acts 7:35; Acts 7:40), and worst of all God,

whom they forsook for a calf and for Moloch. Nevertheless God found ways to ultimately exalt

Abraham, Joseph and Moses to honor. His point being that God will certainly find ways to

promote his son the Messiah in spite of the humiliation which makes the Jews reject him.

Next Stephen addresses the issue of worship. Solomon the builder of the temple

recognized that which the Jews lost sight of, that the Most High does not dwell in temples made

with hands, as though His presence was confined to a specific location (1 Ki. 8:27; 2 Ch. 2:6; 2

Ch. 6:18). Moses was regarded with profound reverence. The laws of Moses were considered

unchangeable and any suggestion that they were only types and shadows of things to come and

no longer binding was considered blasphemy by the council. In their minds there could be no

greater law giver than Moses. Their accusations against Stephen were targeted specifically to

hone in on this point. By doing this the council was able to capitalize on the fears of the people

and thereby secure a guilty verdict for Stephen just as they had done with Christ. Stephen got

into trouble with his defense when he began to imply that acceptable worship to God was not

confined to the temple (Acts 7:48-50). He pointed out that Abraham, the patriarchs and Moses
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had not had a formal place of worship until the tabernacle was given and yet their worship was

received by God. Even though Stephen expressed great reverence for Moses and the law, his

interpretations of them were not received by the listeners; and this in spite of the fact that his face

“…had the appearance of the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15), just as Moses face had also shone

when the law was originally given by him. This seeming to be God’s sign of approval upon

Stephen’s interpretations to the council. It is probable that the Sanhedrin, having discovered and

felt the impact of his arguments against them, became clamorous and that Stephen of course

perceived by their rustling murmurs that they would soon end his debate. After all, his accusers

had the same character of their forefathers (Acts 7:51-52), meaning that they were resisting the

Holy Spirit and always rejecting anything God would speak to them through the prophets. Being

interrupted by this restlessness, Stephen breaks away from his careful discourse and aims his

charges directly at the them, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!” (Acts

7:51). He charged them with rebellion, unsacredness and resistance to the Holy Spirit, the

persecuting conduct of their fathers and the betrayal and murder of the Son of God. When

Stephen finished his defense and counter-accusations he must have been aware what the outcome

would be and knew that he had secured the crown of martyrdom which his name prophesied of

his life.

The bloody work of the stoning of Stephen. Upon hearing all these things we read in

scripture that the people ran upon Stephen to drag him outside the city where he would be stoned

(Acts 7:57-59). Here at the stoning of Stephen were the leaders of religion engaged in trying to

silence those who were followers of Jesus Christ. The religious leaders were unable to dispute

against the grace, power, signs, wonders, supernatural wisdom and miraculously glowing

countenance of Stephen (Acts 6:8-15 AMP). The only way they could end a threat like this was
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to eliminate the threat altogether by killing him. It is my conviction that Saul was one of the

agents of the Jewish council since we know from scripture that he formally approved of

Stephen’s stoning. Another supporting fact which points to this probability is that Saul studied

under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) who was a member of the Sanhedrin council and was present at the

first trial of the Christian faith in Acts 5:34. Certainly a man of such title and position as Saul

would not have used his authority to consent to stone a man unless he had heard the man’s

defense first hand. Therefore, Saul is also the most likely source of Luke’s detailed transcript of

the trial after his own conversion to Christ recorded in Acts 9:1-20. According to custom, the

witnesses or accusers stripped themselves of their outer garments; then one of the prominent

leaders was appointed to signify his assent to the act by taking their clothes into his custody and

guarding them while the bloody work went on. If Saul did not have the authority to provide the

official consent to Stephen’s stoning then the witnesses would not have given him their garments

according to the custom of the practice. The person who officiated on this occasion was of

course the aforementioned man from Tarsus of Cilicia, named Saul. The witnesses, according to

Jewish custom, had to cast the first stone before the masses of people could follow in like

manner, and it was at the feet of Saul that they laid their garments so that they could more

effectively satisfy their lust for blood. Stephen is before us here in two very different lights –

both as a victim and as a victor. Though he was crushed, yet he conquered. This of course is

another great comparison of our hero of the faith Stephen to our great Lord Jesus when he too

was brutally murdered. Had he kept his convictions to himself, or compromised, he would have

avoided such a death, but he was faithful to his convictions and was willing to suffer the

consequences. Stephen’s murderers seemed to get the victory, but it was their victim who

triumphed. He was the first to receive a vision of Christ in his exaltation. He saw Jesus at the
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right hand of God. Jesus is usually said to sit at the right hand of the Father; but Stephen sees

him standing there, ready to receive Stephen as well as judge in the matter of his stoning.

Scripture elsewhere indicates that when Christ stands up from his seated position it is to bring

judgment; “He is raised up out of His holy habitation (Zech. 2:13), comes out of His place to

punish (Is. 26:21), for He will stand at the right hand of the poor and needy, to save him from

those who condemn his life (Ps. 109:31). Christ stands up from his throne, ready to crown his

suffering servant Stephen. Stephen sees Christ is for him, and then it doesn’t seem to matter who

is against him. When our Lord Jesus was in his agony an angel appeared to strengthen him; but

Stephen has Christ himself appearing to him to give him strength. Then, just before Stephen

goes unconscious, he prays for his persecutors just as Christ had done for his.

The impression made by Stephen's death was even greater than that made by his life. It

is my conviction; along with record given by St. Augustine, that Paul received his ‘Damascus

experience’ or conversion to Christ by and through the agent of Stephen’s forgiveness and

prayers for his persecutors during his bloody stoning. In Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the

Bible we read this quote: “St. Augustine has properly remarked, Si Stephanus non orasset,

ecclesia Paulum non haberet.” Translation: “If Stephen had not prayed, the Church of Christ

could not have numbered among her saints the apostle of the Gentiles.” Thus we give indirect

credit for the ministry of Paul to Stephen for his selfless imitation of Christ. He was the

forerunner of Paul, whose very conversion was the first fruit of a dying prayer for his murderers

(Acts 7:60). The death of the first Christian martyr resulted in the acquisition of the conversion

of Saul. The first martyr foreran the first apostle of the gentiles; Stephen anticipated the

worldwide spread of the Christian faith to supersede Judaism which Paul advocated everywhere

in his place. Quoting R. J. Knowling’s, “Acts:” “Thus his teachings forecast that greatest

controversy of the first Christian century, the controversy between Judaism and Christianity,
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which reached its culmination-point in the Council of Jerusalem, resulting in the independence

of the Christian church from the fetters of Judaistic legalism.” Even though he lost his life,

Stephen’s purpose had been realized, the Christian faith was now being forced into autonomy at

the onset of his martyrdom. Stephen is the first to receive the name “martyr” though certainly

not the last (Acts 22:20). The gate opening on the descent to the valley Kedron is called

Stephen’s gate in commemoration of his great witness.

Works Cited

Vers. 7.8. Dec. 2006. e-sword software <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html

Barnes, Albert (1798-1870), ALBERT BARNES’ NOTES on the BIBLE. “Acts 6:11”

Vers. 7.8. Dec. 2006. e-sword software <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html

Clarke, Adam L.L.D., F.S.A., (1715-1832), ADAM CLARKE’S COMMENTARY on the

BIBLE. “Acts 7:60”

Vers. 7.8. Dec. 2006. e-sword software <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html.

Fausset, Andrew Robert (1821-1910), FAUSSET’S BIBLE DICTIONARY, “Stephen”

Vers. 7.8. Dec. 2006. e-sword software <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html


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Orr, James M.A., D.D., General Editor, INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE

ENCYCLOPEDIA, R. J. Knowling, “Acts” in Expositor's Greek Testament., II (1900);

Feine, PRE3, XIX (1907); Pahncke in Studien u. Krit. (1912), I.

Vers. 7.8. Dec. 2006. e-sword software <http://www.e-sword.net/downloads.html

Smith, William Dr. (1884), SMITH’S BIBLE DICTIONARY. “Stephen”

Tenny, Merrill C., General Editor, THE ZONDERVAN PICTORIAL ENCYCLOPEDIA

OF THE BIBLE. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975. Vol. 4, page 103.

Zodhiates, Spiros Th.D., THE COMPLETE WORD STUDY NEW TESTAMENT.

Chattanooga, TN: AMG International, Inc., 1991. 935 (word #3144).