The first martyr

Stephen’s appointment to oversee the business of the church in Jerusalem was based on his reputation for accurate testimony about Jesus’ life; as well as the fact that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and had the spiritual gift of wisdom (Acts 6:3). Luke identified Stephen as being “full of faith and power” and noted that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8). As a result of his notable achievements, Stephen’s activities were opposed by certain synagogue members that were most likely jealous of his promotion to a position of leadership (Acts 6:9-10). Stephen was falsely accused of blasphemy, a crime that was punishable by death. When he was brought before the Jewish council to defend himself, Stephen chose to use his trial as an opportunity to preach the gospel to the high priest of God’s temple (Acts 7).

Stephen began his defense by recounting the history of God’s chosen people. With amazing clarity and detail, Stephen reminded the Jewish council that God had been faithful in keeping the covenant he first made with Abraham and then,  later reaffirmed with Abraham’s descendants just before they entered the Promised Land. As he transitioned to his explanation of the New Covenant that was formulated through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, Stephen focused on the analogy Jesus used when he was asked for a sign of his deity (John 2:18-19). Stephen declared, “Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands” and then he turned the table on his accusers by stating, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:48, 52-53).

Stephen’s abrupt accusation caused the Jewish officials to be “cut to the heart” (Acts 7:54). In other words, they became fed up and took immediate action to silence Stephen regardless of the consequences. Stephen’s stoning made it look like he had been found guilty of blasphemy, but in reality, he was murdered by an angry mob. Luke said of this incident, “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:56-58).

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