Stephen: The First Martyr


Stephen is one of my heroes. The traditional site of his burial is Bet Jamal, 35 kilometers outside of Jerusalem. For three years our family lived adjacent to that property. Stephen attained a remarkable degree of Christ-likeness. His short life is a worthy model for us to meditate on and an example for us to follow.

Character and Charisma

God calls us to walk in both the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5; I Corinthians 12). We should have both moral character and divine charisma. Stephen was included in the first deacons, a group of men described as

“of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” (Acts 6:3) It goes on to say that Stephen “full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs.” (Acts 6:8)

Humility and Boldness

We are called to walked in humility before God (Micah 6:8), yet at the same time to

“speak God’s word with all boldness.” (Acts 4:29)

Not many people have the grace to do both. Stephen served tables in humility as a waiter in his congregation (Acts 6:2). Yet he also rebuked with all boldness the top religious leaders of his day, calling them to their face,

“stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart.”(Acts7:51)

Conformed To The Cross

Our discipleship leads us to be conformed to Yeshua in every way, including that of His death (Philippians 3:10). Stephen was not only the first martyr; his dying moment was similar to that of Yeshua. As they stoned him, he cried out saying,

“Lord Yeshua, receive my spirit”(Acts 7:59); which is parallel to Yeshua’s cry, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Psalm 31:5, Luke 23:46)

Stephen’s last words were to forgive those sinning against him:

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) In this He was conformed to Yeshua’s prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Conformed To His Glory

We are called not only to be conformed to Yeshua in His death, but also in His glory (Romans 8:17, 29-30). I try to meditate every day on Yeshua as He was crucified and as He was glorified. It seems paradoxical to combine those two images because they seem so different, even opposite. Yet Stephen managed to achieve both suffering and glorification at the same time.

Right before he was stoned, his accusers looked at him and

“saw his face as the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15) When Yeshua was seen in His glorified form, John described that “His face was shining like the sun.” (Revelation 1:16)

That Stephen was able to reach the pinnacle of Yeshua’s crucifixion and His glorification at the same moment, is one of the most remarkable achievements in human history.

Hebraic and Greek

Stephen was Jewish but his name was Greek. He was one of those called upon to settle the dispute between the early Hebrew-speaking and Greek-speaking Messianic believers (Acts 6:1). Apparently he spoke both languages. His bi-cultural ability was a key factor. The apostle Paul was also fully bi-cultural, whereas the apostle Peter was primarily of the local Hebraic culture. Western Christianity developed along the line of Greek European culture. Today many Christians are rediscovering their Jewish roots as well (Romans 11:15-33).

The two world views – Hebraic and Greek – are important to understand the full counsel of God (Acts 20:27; Acts 1:6, 8; Ephesians 2:11-3:6; Revelation 7:4, 9). Although Stephen spoke Greek, his message to the Hebrew religious leaders (Acts 7:2-33) is perhaps the most extensive presentation of the gospel in its Jewish historical context in the Bible.

Witness And Martyrdom

The word “martyr” in the original means “witness, testimony, evidence”. Paul witnessed the death of Stephen; it was a powerful testimony for him, part of what eventually led him to faith (Acts 22:20). There is some hint that much of the reward for Paul’s preaching will go back to Stephen (I Corinthians 9:16).

In the resurrection, we will all receive a reward, good or bad, for what we have done in this life (II Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:12). Not everyone will receive the same level of resurrection; some will achieve a better resurrection, some less so (Philippians 3:11; Hebrews 11:35; Revelation 20:4-6). We will all die one way or the other (if the Lord tarries). The question is not whether you will die, but how you will die, and what will you give your life for.