Martyrdom of Stephen
by Jack Wald | August 23rd, 2020

Acts 6:8-8:1
Last Sunday Elliot preached about the apostles choosing seven men to assist them with caring for the growing numbers of followers of Jesus. Among those men was Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is followed by the first of five verses in Acts that speak of the continuing growth of the church. These divide the rest of the book of Acts into approximate five year periods. This first one follows the choosing of seven men to help the apostles with the needs of the community. The next comes after the conversion of Saul, then after the conversion of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, then after Paul’s first missionary journey, and finally after the second and third missionary journeys. These summary verses carry the message all the way through the book of Acts that the church continued to grow.

The growth of the church in the early centuries was remarkable. By the end of the first century, churches were established in the Northeastern Mediterranean. By the end of the second century, churches had been established in the Western Mediterranean and by the end of the third century, the growth of the church had exploded all around the Mediterranean and into Europe. By 300 A.D. followers of Jesus made up ten percent of Romans. Egypt alone had one million followers of Jesus.

Luke writes:
Acts 6:7
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Who were these priests? These are mostly ordinary priests who served in the temple one month out of the year. The rest of the year they had to practice some trade to earn income for their families. They were socially and economically separated from the wealthy priests who opposed Jesus in the gospels. There were about 8,000 of them in Jerusalem and many of these became followers of Jesus.

It is interesting to note this because historically, the gospel has often appealed most strongly to the poor and oppressed members of cultures.

In this growing community of followers of Jesus, Stephen was chosen as a leader.

What do we know about Stephen? The fact that he was chosen as one of the seven tells us that Stephen was an intelligent, talented leader. He understood the teaching of the apostles and was able to clearly articulate this himself. Stephen’s intelligence and leadership did not appear all of a sudden when he became a follower of Jesus so it is logical to infer that he had also been a leader in the synagogue before he became a follower of Jesus.

When he is introduced as one of the seven he is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” As Luke begins to tell the story of Stephen’s martyrdom, he writes,
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.

Up to now we have read about the apostles performing great wonders and signs, now we see that wonders and signs were not limited to the apostles. Stephen also performed impressive miracles as he healed people and delivered them from demonic possession.

Stephen was one of the Hellenistic Jews. For those of you did not hear Elliot preach last week, the Hebraic Jews were the initial followers of Jesus. Most of them came from Galilee. Their mother tongue was Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus.

The Hellenistic Jews were Greek-speaking Jews who had immigrated or been taken from Palestine to one of the other nations of the ancient world. These Jews came back to Jerusalem for the annual festivals and some decided to stay for one reason or another. They did not speak Aramaic and read the Scriptures from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Stephen was probably a member of the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Freedmen were former slaves, or the children of former slaves, who had been given their freedom by their owners. There were many Jews who were taken captive to Rome at the time of Pompey’s conquest of Judea in 63 B.C., a hundred years earlier, and some of these were given their freedom and returned to Israel, the home of their parents and grandparents.

It is in this synagogue that Stephen stood up and spoke about his newfound faith in Jesus.

Luke writes,
Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.

Think of this situation from the perspective of the leaders of the synagogue. Stephen had been a leader among them, had spoken in the synagogue when they met for their services. He had been looked to as one of the bright young men who would lead the synagogue in the future. And now he, along with others, had joined those who claimed that Jesus was the Messiah.

Those who left the synagogue were not a small number. The number of men in the followers of Jesus was more than five thousand by this time. It would make sense that hundreds among them had come out of this synagogue.

So you have a man who had been well respected when he was in the synagogue, teaching and preaching that Jesus was the Messiah. This was not the apostles teaching in Aramaic and then having what they said translated into Greek so the Helenistic Jews could understand. This was a Helenistic Jew teaching and preaching in Greek to the Greek-speaking Jews that made up their synagogue. Hundreds had already left putting strains on the finances of the synagogue. Stephen’s preaching and the wonders and miraculous signs that accompanied his preaching were pulling more people out of the synagogue.

From the perspective of the leaders of the synagogue, they were facing a crisis and had to do something to deal with it.

When the leaders of this synagogue met to discuss what they could do to stop the drain of people and money from their synagogue, they decided to pick a few skilled debaters to argue with Stephen. If they could show, in front of all those who listened to Stephen, that he was wrong, they might even be able to win back some of those who had left.

They assembled an all-star team from their synagogue. It is possible that Saul of Tarsus was part of the synagogue that included Jews from Cilicia since that is the region he was from. As we know from later in Acts, Saul, or Paul as he came to be known, was an extremely intelligent and skilled debater. Was he one of those who argued with Stephen?

I would imagine these men met to plan what they would say and how they would refute what Stephen was saying. I would imagine that when they were preparing, they came up with what they thought were some real zingers that would leave Stephen speechless. They thought they had an advantage because they knew what Stephen was teaching and could lead him into a trap.

But when they got out into the temple area where Stephen was preaching and teaching, they were defeated by his wisdom and by the Holy Spirit who was helping Stephen with his speaking. All of their brilliant logic, clever questions, and creative traps came to nothing. They set out to discredit Stephen in the presence of the crowd who came to hear him and instead they were the ones who were discredited.

This happened just as Jesus had taught. (Luke 12:11-12)
When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.

The men sent out from the synagogue went back, perhaps embarrassed by their failure to defeat Stephen and probably angry.

Stephen was fighting against the world and the devil, and the world and the devil do what they always do when they are not able to win.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

When they lost the battle of theology, they moved to slander and then to violence.

Money was probably paid to get these witnesses to lie and when they lied, they broke the ninth of the ten commandments,
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

This was a serious offense for which the penalty was death. This was the same thing Jezebel, the evil wife of Ahab, did when Ahab lusted for the vineyard of Naboth. She paid to have two witnesses bring false testimony against Naboth and he was killed. Jews viewed the actions of Ahab and Jezebel as among the worst in Israel’s history and yet these Jews followed their example.

One of the lessons from this passage is that when opposition rises up against you, do not be surprised that it is not fair. Justice is not the issue when opposition to the gospel arises and the tactics used will not be fair. We may be angry at the injustice of the opposition and anger is the godly response to injustice, but we should not be surprised.

We, like Stephen, are to preach the gospel of Christ and when opposition arises, it does not matter if the tactics used against us are fair or not. We are not to resort to the slander of our opponents. We are to continue to preach the gospel and leave those who slander us in the hands of Jesus who will administer final and perfect justice.

The men sent from the synagogues were not able to defeat the wisdom of Stephen and the Holy Spirit who was inspiring him so they resorted to slander and had him arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin.

Luke writes,
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

This must have been a very frustrating period in the life of the Sanhedrin. First Jesus was brought before them and they arranged for him to be crucified. Then they arrested Peter and John when they healed the man born lame and reprimanded them. Then they arrested all twelve of the apostles but they were miraculously released from prison and when they came to be questioned, they were not at all intimated or repentant.

Now they bring Stephen and again, he is also not intimated. He is not nervous. He is not anxious. He is perfectly at peace and has the face of an angel.

I imagine this was not the norm. I imagine that most people who were brought before the Sanhedrin were nervous and anxious and fearful. I imagine that even the educated who were brought before the Sanhedrin could find their knees knocking and their voice less than steady. Perhaps there were a lot of people who suddenly found themselves stammering when they appeared.

But not these followers of Jesus.

Luke writes,
Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
2 To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me!

It is likely that the high priest at the time was Caiaphas, the same high priest who had overseen the trial of Jesus three to five years earlier.

The trial of Jesus was a distant memory, but over the years, there had been reminders of that trial. John and Peter had been brought before the Sanhedrin and then some time later, all twelve of the apostles had been brought before the Sanhedrin.

These had all been Hebraic Jews who spoke Aramaic. Now this was a Greek-speaking Jew who was being brought before him. This heresy was spreading and that was not good news.

It helps to understand the strategy of Caiaphas. The temple in Jerusalem was a point of national pride. It was a bit like the black stone in Mecca to which Muslims go each year for the Haj. To speak against the temple was to speak against the heart of Israel. When the prophet Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would be captured by the Babylonians and that the temple would not protect them, he was viewed as a national traitor and thrown into prison.

If Caiaphas could get these followers of Jesus to speak against the sanctity of the temple, then he might turn the people who were now supporting the followers of Christ against them.

Caiaphas had tried to get Jesus to speak negatively about the temple but Jesus had remained silent, not willing to answer the accusations brought against him. Now he had another chance with Stephen.

False accusations had been used in the trial against Jesus. (Mark 14:57)
Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’”

These charges were based on Jesus’ response to the Jews when they asked him by what authority he cleansed the temple of the money changers. (John 2:19)
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Now the same false accusations were leveled against Stephen who had been teaching the resurrection of Jesus and using these words.
“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Stephen was accused of two things: blasphemy against Moses and against the temple
This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

And then came time for Stephen to make his defense.
Then the high priest asked him, “Are these charges true?”

This speech of Stephen is the longest of all the speeches in Acts. It is important to remember that there were no tape recorders and no stenographers to record exactly what was said. So the speeches in Acts are just summaries of what was said. Even this speech, the longest in the book of Acts, takes just six minutes to deliver. Certainly Peter spoke longer than this at his first sermon at Pentecost and Stephen spoke longer than this in front of the Sanhedrin.

When Luke wrote his gospel of Jesus and the history of the early church, he interviewed people who were eyewitnesses to the events and then wrote his two books. When we read a speech, we are reading what Luke wrote from the memory of someone who had heard it.

Who was the eyewitness to this speech of Stephen? Not Stephen who was killed just after giving the speech. Who then? The most likely candidate is Paul. Paul, then called Saul, was an eyewitness to the defense of Stephen and Luke traveled extensively with Paul. So there were many opportunities for Luke to listen as Paul recounted his experiences.

In this speech, the defense offered by Stephen has two theses.

  1. Throughout its history, Israel had rejected the prophets and now they had rejected the Messiah
  2. The God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place.

You will see how directly these two theses attacked the authority of the Sanhedrin.

To illustrate these two points, Stephen recounted the history of Israel, focusing on Abraham, Joseph and Moses.

Joseph was rejected by his brothers, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, when they sold him into slavery.

Moses was rejected by his fellow Israelites when he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating two Israelite slaves and he was further rejected when they chose to worship a golden calf rather than wait for him to come down from the mountain. There was continual rejection by Israel of the leadership of Moses in the wilderness.

This pattern of rejection was continued with the prophets who followed. One of the parables of Jesus addressed this. A landowner planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and then went away on a journey. When harvest time came, he sent servants to collect his fruit. The farmers beat one servant, killed the second and stoned the third. The landowner sent more servants but they were treated the same. Finally he sent his son and they killed him as well.
Matthew 21
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
”‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

This teaching of Jesus caused offense when he first taught this parable and it continued to cause offense when Stephen taught this parable. The Pharisees and Sadducees had good reason to be offended because this was a direct attack on their leadership of Israel. Their forefathers had rejected the messengers of God and now they were continuing that pattern by rejecting the son who had come.

The second thesis in Stephen’s speech was that the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place.

God spoke to Abraham, Joseph and Moses but where did he speak to them? God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq and Iran, before he left for Canaan. God spoke to Joseph in Egypt. God spoke to Moses in Egypt. In fact Moses never entered into the Promised Land and yet who spoke to Moses as God spoke to Moses?
Exodus 33
Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. 11 The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

God spoke to these three great men in the history of Israel yet he did not need to have a temple to do so.

When there was no temple, God spoke to the ancestors of Israel. Who did the Sanhedrin think God was that he could be contained in one spot, that he could be spoken to only in the temple in Jerusalem?

In fact, at least in part, this was a matter of control they were fighting for. If God could be spoken to only in the temple in Jerusalem and they were the priests in charge of the temple, then all the worshipers of God from anywhere in the world had to come through them. This was not just an attack on their religious understanding, it was a direct threat to their livelihood. The economic life of the city and its residents depended on the temple. That, in worldly terms, is reason enough to fight.

Stephen said to the Sanhedrin,
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet Isaiah says:
49 ”‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
50 Has not my hand made all these things?’

With solid, Biblical illustrations, Stephen made his defense to the Sanhedrin that God was not restricted to the temple and that the pattern of rejection of the messengers of God was long standing.

It does not seem that Stephen had the opportunity to finish what he had to say. He made his two points and then like all good preachers, he came with an application of his message. This was a direct, full-frontal, accusatory application.
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”

If Stephen had more to say, he never had the chance.

Luke writes,
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.

I hope you see why they were so furious. I hope you can sympathize a bit with them. This Greek-speaking Jew was directly challenging their authority. He was telling them that they had killed God’s Messiah for whom Israel for centuries had been waiting. He was telling them that they had now been pushed aside by God and no longer were the leaders of his people. They had good reason to be furious.

And then it got even worse. In the midst of their anger, Stephen received from God a vision of heaven.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Is there anything Stephen could have said that would have made his situation worse? I don’t think so.

When he declared to them what he was seeing, he put an exclamation point at the end of his accusation. If Jesus, the man they had killed, was now standing at the right hand of God, then Jesus was in the position of all power. If this was true, then they had killed the one who had all power over them and they had killed the one who now had all authority over Israel.

Stephen, in declaring his vision, cut off completely their position as spiritual leaders of God’s people. Stephen, in effect, told them they were fired and out of a job.

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,  58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 

We will come to the death of Stephen and its effect on Saul who stood as witness next Sunday.

Let me make just one application this morning. When Stephen made his speech, his speech was not designed to have the charges against him dropped. His speech was designed to defend the work of God in Christ.

Stephen did not try to refute the charges made against him. He did not take the Sanhedrin back to his teaching and show them how his words had been taken out of context. He did not try to refute the lies that had been told. He did not try to win the sympathy of members of the Sanhedrin so they would be lenient with him.

Stephen viewed his arrest and trial as an attack on Jesus and he set out to defend him.

Christianity is not about us, it is about Jesus. It is not our honor that needs defending, it is the honor of God that is to be defended.

When Stephen stood before the Sanhedrin, I don’t think he was worried about what the Sanhedrin thought about him. I don’t think he was hoping that after the trial they would sit around and discuss how eloquent he was and what a wonderful man he was.

Stephen understood that it was the message of God, the Gospel, that was on trial and that God’s honor and message needed defending, not himself.

If we are attacked for being followers of Jesus, we need to remember that we are beloved daughters and beloved sons of God. We are citizens of his kingdom and we defend Jesus, not ourselves.

A diplomat does not defend himself or herself, a diplomat defends his or her country. We are to do the same.

But we are not always attacked for being a follower of Jesus, at least that is not always the stated objection. I have talked with people over the years who were leaders of some ministry and were attacked for how they were leading. Sometimes they were accused of having bad motives for the decisions they made. I told them that if you try to defend yourself, it will just be a matter of he said, she said.

In all these cases I have counseled them to not try to defend themselves. When some public figure is accused of sexual misbehavior, or dishonest conduct, what happens? The man or woman stands there next to their spouse and says these are false accusations. The man or woman denies that they stole something, did something dishonest, or whatever they are accused of.

But we hear these denials so often that we, at least I, wonder if they are telling the truth. The only way to see the truth is to look at how that person acts in the future. A dishonest person will continue to be dishonest. A manipulative person will continue to be manipulative. A morally bankrupt person will continue to be morally bankrupt.

Over time the true character of the person is revealed. This is true for the person being attacked and it is true for those who are attacking.

I have seen how this works and seen the person who was accused being vindicated with time.

The reason why this is so important is that it is our character that matters. We are representing Jesus in this world. When we are confronted with an accusation, we need to examine the accusation and see if there is any truth in it. If there is truth in it, then we need to take the accusation to heart and make changes in our lives.

It is how we live after we have been accused that will be our defense. If we respond to accusations with humility and continue to extend mercy and grace to those around us, our character, who God has made us to be, will be our best defense.

This is true in ministry but I have also seen this in the workplace. A boss is critical of an employee. What can the employee do? I argue that we do best when we do not try to defend ourselves. We let who we are defend us. We let our actions defend us. Over time our colleagues will see who is right and who is wrong. Over time our colleagues will see that the character God has built into us is who we really are. They will see the love of God in our lives and the light of Christ will shine even brighter.

I have seen this in relationships, marital and otherwise. When there is conflict, it is the life we live with Christ that is our best defense.

Once again, we need to learn from these conflicts. We do need to understand that we are all broken and all need to be mended. We are all in process; none of us have arrived at perfection. We will learn from each encounter and as we do, we will continue to grow into who God created us to be. We will become, more and more, a bright witness of Jesus to the world.

So when you are attacked, when you are being accused of something, don’t defend yourself. You represent Jesus in this world and the fruit of your life in Christ will be revealed. With time people will see the truth. The accusations will be proven or disproven with time.

What matters the most is not your reputation. It is the reputation of Jesus that matters most. Stephen defended Jesus and was martyred. We may also suffer in the process of being accused, but who we are and who we represent will be made known with time. May we bring glory and honor to Jesus in all our relationships.