St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church, is a role model for our Christian witnessing. Even if God does not want us to shed blood for Christ, our words and actions according to the teachings of Christ can make us living martyrs. Being filled with grace and power of God, the Spirit of the Lord was at work with Stephen during his trial in front of the Sanhedrin. He set us an example of how to face challenges in faith and how to deal with those who persecute us. Following his master Jesus, Stephen forgave the offenses of his persecutors and prayed for them while they were throwing stones at him. Following Jesus, Stephen accepted the martyrdom for his faith and preaching.
(Acts 6:8) Stephen, a man full of grace and power did great wonders and signs among the people. (9) Some persons, who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) from Cyrene, Alexandria, and others from Cilicia and Asia, came forward and argued with Stephen. (10) But they could not match the wisdom and the Spirit which prompted what he spoke.
(Acts 7:54) When they heard these things, they were enraged and they gnashed their teeth at Stephen. (55) But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus at God’s right hand, (56) “Look!” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (57) But they shouted and covered their ears with their hands, and rushed together upon him. (58) They brought him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. (59) As they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (60) Then he knelt down and said in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The Life of St. Stephen
Stephen’s past life is unknown. He was a Hellenistic (Greek speaking) Jew who became Christian and lived in Jerusalem. A tradition from the fifth century claims that his original name was Kelil in Aramaic that means “crown.” Stephanos was the Greek word for the crown. He was a young and enthusiastic preacher of Christ. Stephen was a leading figure among the seven deacons selected and ordained to serve the early church. He was the oldest among the deacons. Since he was the chief among them, the church titled him the archdeacon. (http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=137).
Though the primary assignment of deacons was to serve at the table (Acts 6:2), they also served the apostles at the table of the Lord and preached the Word of God. “Stephen, a man full of grace and power did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8). As a Hellenistic Jewish Christian, Stephen could influence the Hellenistic Jews for their conversion. This disturbed the Hellenistic Jewish leaders. So, they argued with Stephen to generate evidence against him to present to the Jewish higher authorities. According to Acts 6:9, “Some persons, who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen” argued with Stephen along with others. The scholars’ assumption is that these freedmen were former Roman slaves whom the emperor released. They built their own synagogue in Jerusalem. People call it the “Synagogue of Freedmen.” http://www.biblehistory.com/jerusalem/firstcenturyjerusalem_synagogue_of_the_freedmen.html).
The main accusation against Stephen was blasphemy because he spoke against the Temple and against the Laws of Moses. The Sanhedrin questioned him and sentenced to stone him to death. He was an inspiration for the early Christians when they faced persecution. Since Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the church calls him the “proto-martyr,” that means the first martyr.
The selection of Deacons
The first reference we have of St. Stephen is in Acts 6:5 in the context of deacons’ selection. That was the apostles’ suggestion because of the complaint of the Greek speaking Christians against the Hebrew or Aramaic speaking Jews. The apostles ordained “seven respected men, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3) to take care of the daily distribution of resources to those in need in the early Christian community.
There were two groups of Jews. The “Hebrews” was a conservative group who always remained in Judea, used only Hebrew, their patriarch’s language, and worshiped in the Temple of Jerusalem. The other group was the Hellenists. To Hellenize means to adopt the Greek ideology and culture. These Jews lived in faraway places among the Gentiles, spoke Greek language, had the influence of Greek culture introduced by Alexander the Great, and used Septuagint that is the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
Though both groups were Jews, the Hebrews felt themselves superior, and the Hellenists were jealous of the Hebrews and felt themselves as outsiders. Conversion to Christianity happened from both groups. Even after becoming Christians, the division persisted that led to the complaint on the distribution of common resources to the widows. The deacons’ appointment resolved that problem.
The apostles wanted to focus more on “prayer and ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). So, they suggested the community of the Christian disciples to select seven from among the disciples. The community selected the seven on whom the apostles prayed, laid hands, and appointed for diaconate ministry. This laying of hands was the customary Jewish practice of invoking God’s blessings and empowering them for their assigned task.
Accusations against Stephen
The secret of Stephen’s success was that he was “filled with grace and power” (Acts 6:8). The Bible documents on a few people filled with the Holy Spirit. Examples are Samson (Judg. 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14), Elizabeth (Luke 1:41), Zechariah (Luke 1:67), Disciples of Jesus (Acts 2:2-4; 4:31), Peter in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:8), and Paul (Acts 9:17). When the Holy Spirit empowers a person, his faith and actions will be extraordinary. “Stephen, a man full of grace and power did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8).
The people in the synagogue debated with Stephen and they failed to win him because of “the wisdom and the Spirit which prompted what he spoke.” (Acts 6:10). For the Jews, the Temple and the Law were precious. Stephen preached that the Temple had to pass away, and the Law had to give way to the gospel of Jesus opening salvation for all people. The traditional Jews could not accept these. So, they made false witnesses against Stephen. The accusation was that they heard Stephen speaking blasphemy against Moses and God.
The members of the synagogue brought Stephen to the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and the tribunal of Jews headed by the High Priest. Sanhedrin had religious, civil, and criminal authority over the Jews. The false witnesses testified that Stephen spoke against the Temple of Jerusalem, saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple. Another accusation was that Jesus would change the Jewish customs Moses gave by making Jesus higher than Moses (Acts 6:13-14). The members of the Sanhedrin noticed that Stephen’s face looked like the face of an angel.
Format of Stephen’s talk at the Sanhedrin
The High Priest gave an opportunity for Stephen to defend himself. Stephen delivered a long discourse of the salvation history where the principal leaders of the past like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and David pleased God. But none of them had a temple to worship the Lord until Solomon built the Temple. So, the people cannot confine God to the Temple because God also dwells in the human hearts as He did with the patriarchs. Stephen’s point was that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” (Acts 7:48).
The past leaders made transitions according to the commandments they received from the Lord from time to time. So also, the Jewish leaders of Stephen’s time had to change according to the teachings given through the Son of God, Jesus. Stephen compared the Israelites’ rejection of Moses in the desert to the Jewish leaders’ denial of Jesus (Acts 7:39-42).
So, Stephen confronted the Sanhedrin based on the two pillars of their faith: The Law of Moses and the Temple of the Lord. He also portrayed how the five prominent leaders of the past kept the Laws and could worship God without the Temple. Jesus revised the Temple and the Law. The Jews did to Jesus what their ancestors had done to the prophets of the Lord. Thus, Stephen’s defense turned into a bitter accusation against the Sanhedrin.
Stephen boldly labeled the powerful Sanhedrin members as murderers and violators of the law. “You are a stubborn people, uncircumcised in hearts and ears, you are always resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your fathers did.” (Acts 7:51). Stephen criticized the Sanhedrin that they were following their ancestors in betraying and murdering the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah and not observing the Laws (Acts 7: 52-53).
The Sanhedrin’s reaction was natural. They became furious and gnashed their teeth against Stephen. The Bible uses “Gnashing of teeth” in two contexts. Its first connection is with the eternal punishment where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth because it is a time of utter disappointment and anger against God and against their own actions in the earthly life. Another context, as used here, is like what Psalm 37:12 says, “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them.” There are similar references in Psalm 35:16; 112:10; and Lamentations 2:16. In these passages, wicked gnash their teeth at the blameless, expressing their anger or disapproval. Thus Luke, the author of Acts, presents Stephen as innocent and the Sanhedrin as wicked.
Stephen was privileged to have a vision of heaven that assured him of his correct approach in front of Sanhedrin. “He, filled with the holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55). Usually, the Bible refers to Jesus sitting at the right hand of God. Here we notice a difference that Jesus was standing. The interpretation is that Jesus was active at the trial of Stephen and was extending his hands to welcome Stephen to heaven.
The Sanhedrin took Stephen’s vision as a last proof of blasphemy because the Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. So, for them, Jesus could not be beside the Father in heaven. The members of the Sanhedrin covered their ears, rushed upon Stephen, and drove him out of the city to stone him to death. The Jewish law permitted death penalty by stoning for blasphemy. “Whoever blasphemes the Name of the LORD shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; whether resident alien or native, whoever blasphemes the Name shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16).
Stephen followed his master Jesus at the time of his martyrdom. While his enemies were stoning him, Stephen called out “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7: 59). The vision he had of Jesus standing to welcome him gave him confidence. Again, Stephen fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 60). Luke documents in the Acts that Stephen fell asleep. That shows the faith in the body’s resurrection.
Stephen was the first martyr of the church. His martyrdom inspired many early Christians to face the brutal persecution from the Jews and Romans.
Comparison of Stephen with Jesus
Being the first martyr, Stephen also set an excellent example of how to follow Jesus during the trial and martyrdom. Examples of parallelism of the two are:
The Sanhedrin trialed both.
The Jews accused blasphemy in both.
The enemies accused both for standing against the teachings of Moses.
Both had false witnesses against them.
Both spoke on the Temple’s destruction.
Both faced trial and death with boldness.
The enemies martyred both outside the city.
Both forgave the sins of the persecutors and prayed for them.
Both called out, “Lord, receive my spirit.”
St. Stephen and St. Paul
God answered Stephen’s prayer for his enemies by Saul’s conversion. Paul said, “while the blood of your witness Stephen was being poured out, I stood by and approved it and even guarded the clothes of his murderers.” (Acts 22:20). This Saul who persecuted many Christians later became St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. St. Paul also became a martyr for Christ.
Burial and Tomb of Stephen
The Christians buried the body of Stephen, but the location of his tomb was unknown for years. A Christian priest in 415 claimed he had a vision of the tomb of St. Stephen and located the remains. A name inside the tomb confirmed that it was of Stephen. The church preserved it in the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls in Rome.
Artist portray St. Stephen with stones, a gospel book, a miniature church, and a martyr’s palm. He is the patron saint of deacons, altar servers, masons, casket makers, coffin makers, and horses. The Western Church celebrates his feast on December 26 and the Eastern Church on December 27th.