The book of Acts details the account of Stephen, known to many as the “first martyr.” He was a man who stood up for his faith, and consequently, was stoned to death. In Acts 6:8- 7:60, the Bible tells us how Stephen was slandered, seized, and then, consequently, stoned for his faith in Jesus. In sum, Stephen suffered because he fully believed that Jesus is the Messiah.
Even amid such pressure, Stephen held his composure and honored God with his actions.
According to John MacArthur, “Stephen was one of the church’s newly appointed ‘deacons.’ With Christlike character, he ministered powerfully among the people until the day he encountered a group of argumentative Jews.” He was a man who stood up for what he believed, and because of that, became martyred for his love for God and faith in the Messiah. When faced with insurmountable pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, Stephen did not back down.
Acts 6:11-14 explains how some people instigated slanderous remarks about him. The Bible says, “Then they secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” The accusations against Stephen were serious. John Sailhamer writes, “Their charge was that Stephen was speaking against the temple and the Law of Moses (vv. 13-14).” In addition to the false slanderous remarks about Stephen, the religious leaders seized him to confront him. Acts 6:15 says, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Even amid such pressure, Stephen held his composure and honored God with his actions.
As noted, Stephen stood up for his faith and his beliefs. As accusations surrounded him, he was allowed to defend his beliefs. John MacArthur says, “For faithfully discharging his duties as a believer, Stephen was arrested.” Acts 7:1 explains how the high priest allowed Stephen to defend himself. Most eloquently, Stephen spends most of Acts chapter seven giving what some would call “a helpful reminder” to the religious leaders of his day. In other words, he reminded them of their spiritual lineage and history.
Stephen suffered because he fully believed that Jesus is the Messiah.
John Sailhamer says, “Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin was a masterful appeal to the whole of the OT Scriptures in defense of the Gospel. In it, Stephen stressed the promised blessings of God and their continual delay because of the people’s unfaithfulness.” Additionally, Dr. Warren Wiersbe says, “But this address was more than a recitation of familiar facts; it was also a refutation of their indictments against Stephen and a revelation of their national sins. Stephen proved from their Scriptures that the Jewish nation was guilty of worse sins than they had accused him of committing.”
In response to Stephen’s speech, the religious leaders of the day, including Saul’s very interesting person, approve of Stephen’s stoning. Acts 7:54-56 says, “Now when they heard these things, they were enraged and ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” There can be no doubt that Stephen was bold in his testimony and belief in Jesus.
Stephen’s sermon only made the Jewish religious leaders angry. In fact, “he gave the religious leaders a concise review of Jewish history and then abruptly accused the council of murdering the long-awaited Messiah. This blunt and pointed sermon sent the Jews into a rage and resulted in the first martyrdom in church history” (MacArthur). The Bible tells us the religious leaders’ response was to stone Stephen. Acts 7:57-58 tells us, “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Stephen was martyred for his love for God and faith in Jesus.
With Stephen’s death, those who followed Jesus faced intense persecution. Saul, who approved of Stephen’s stoning, proved himself to be a leader in persecuting believers. This, of course, caused believers great angst. MacArthur states, “From a human perspective, this was an awful turn of events; from a divine perspective, everything resulted in a far greater good. The Christians were forced to scatter to the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria. As they did, the Gospel began to be preached to Gentile audiences. Thus, in the midst of terrible persecution, the church actually grew!”
The Reformation Study Bible (ESV)
Be Dynamic: Experience The Power Of God’s People Acts 1-12 (Warren Wiersbe)
NIV Compact Commentary (John Sailhamer)
Acts: The Spread Of The Gospel (John MacArthur)