Around the world, the gospel has most often taken root in places prepared by the
blood of martyrs. Before people can give their lives for the gospel, however, they
must first live their lives for the gospel. One way God trains His servants is to
place them in insignificant positions. Their desire to serve Christ is translated
into the reality of serving others.
Long before violent persecution broke out against Christians, there was already
social ostracism. Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah were usually cut off from their
families. As a result, the believers depended on one another for support. The sharing
of homes, food, and resources was both a practical and necessary mark of the early
church. In the days following the Ascension and Pentecost, the numbers of disciples
grew so large that the apostles had no time to concentrate on prayer and the ministry
of the Word. As a result of this growth, people were being overlooked, there were
They assembled the community and told them to choose seven men of integrity, wisdom
and sensitivity to God. Those chosen would become church’s first deacons, responsible
for overseeing the distribution of alms, food and property, and attending to some
of the spiritual needs of the community. The deacons were ordained by the Apostles
who first prayed over them and then laid hands upon their heads.
Stephen was one of the deacons chosen. He was unquestionably Jewish, and was most
likely a Diaspora Jew who spoke Greek. His spoken name was Stephanos, which in Greek
means "crown". The circumstances of his conversion aren't known, but he
appears here in Acts when amongst the growing numbers of gathered disciples there
were murmurs against the treatment of widows who spoke Greek by the Hebrews. He
was already a 'man filled with grace and power, who worked great wonders and signs
among the people.' Acts 6:8
Associated in these charitable tasks with Stephen, whose name heads the list as
"a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit," were Philip, known as "the
Evangelist," Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas-all Greek names.
The title of deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the
Greek verb meaning "to minister." These men served the Christian community
in temporal and charitable affairs; later on they were to assume minor religious
Stephen, besides being a good administrator, was also a powerful speaker. When confronted
in the temple by various antagonistic groups, Stephen’s logic in responding was
convincing. It was in a certain synagogue of Jews "called that of the Freedmen,
and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province
of Asia" that Stephen chiefly disputed. Perhaps they did not understand him;
at all events, they could not make effective answer, and so fell to abusing him.
They bribed men to say that Stephen was speaking blasphemous words against Moses
and against God. The elders and the scribes were stirred up and brought him before
the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal, which had authority in both civil and
religious matters. False witnesses made their accusations.
Stephen defended himself ably, reviewing the long spiritual history of his people.
Stephen showed those assembled that although Moses foretold a new law and a Messiah,
and that Solomon had built the Temple, both were temporary and were supposed to
fall in order than God might introduce more perfect institutions. This had been
fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah; his defense turned into a bitter accusation.
He concluded thus:
"Yet not in houses made by hands does the Most High dwell, even as the prophet
says.... Stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always oppose the
Holy Spirit; as your father did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not
your fathers persecuted? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just
One, of whom you have now been the betrayers and murderers, you who received the
Law as an ordinance of angels and did not keep it."
Finally, turning his eyes upwards, he saw the Heavens open and his Savior, Jesus
Christ ready to protect, receive and crown his servant, Stephen. Joyfully, he informed
the crowd of this vision. Stephen must have known he was speaking his own death
sentence for the members of the council could not stand to have their evil motives
exposed. Both the Sanhedrin and the crowd became so enraged that they abandoned
the procedures of the court and the sentencing power of the Roman governor and dragged
Stephen out of the city.
Piling their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul of Tarsus, they began
stoning Stephen. They stoned him to death while he prayed for their forgiveness.
He died crying out to the Lord "Receive my spirit." and "Lord, lay
not this sin to their charge."
Stephen didn’t really defend himself. Instead, he took the offensive, seizing the
opportunity to summarize his teaching about Jesus. Stephen was accusing these religious
leaders of failing to obey God’s laws – the laws they prided themselves in following
so meticulously. This was the same accusation that Jesus had leveled against them.
When we witness for Christ, we don’t need to be on the defensive. Instead we can
simply share our faith.
His final words show how much like Jesus he had become in a short time. His death
had a lasting impact on the young Saul of Tarsus, who would move from being a violent
persecutor of Christians to being one of the greatest champions of the gospel the
church has ever known.
Stephen’s life should be a continual challenge to all Christians. Because he was
the first to die for the faith, his sacrifice raises questions: How many risks do
we take in being a follower of Jesus? Would we be willing to die for Him? Are we
really willing to live for Him?
Stephen’s review of Jewish history gives a clear testimony of God’s faithfulness
and sovereignty. Despite the continued failures of His chosen people and the swirling
of world events, God was working out His plan. When faced by a confusing array of
circumstances, remember that:
- God is in control – nothing surprises Him,
- This world is not all there is – it will pass away, but God is eternal;
- God is just, and He will make things right – punishing the wicked and rewarding
- God wants to use you (like Joseph, Moses, and Stephen) to make a difference in the