It has been truly said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”, and it is therefore fitting that the case of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, should be considered carefully. Many others down through the centuries have followed in Steph-en’s train, impregnating the earth with fruitful lives and planting the banner of truth and triumph on the blood-stained sacrifices and short-ened testimonies of the faithful.
The Greek word martus from which “martyr” is derived simply means a witness. Prior to His ascension in glory, our Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “ye shall be witnesses unto me” – in Jerusalem like Stephen, in Judea like Peter, in Samaria like Philip the evangelist, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth. Histor-ians proclaim with one voice that in the first century the same glorious testimony was reiterated in every part of the known world. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, began his witness in the Jewish capital, and the Lord sent Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, to suffer and testify in Rome, the Gentile capital. James, the son of Zebedee, preached the Word in Jer-usalem until Herod had him beheaded, while his brother John, a witness to the love of God in the environs of Ephesus, died a natural death in that city. Tradition tells us that the gospel was preached by Matthew in Ethiopia and by Thomas in India. Witnessing was not the privilege of outstanding or gifted leaders only, for in the early church it became the sacred duty of each new convert to disseminate the inestimable blessings of the gospel everywhere and thus to share them with others.
The public testimony of Stephen was confined to Jerusalem in which as far as is recorded at that time, the only Christian church existed. It con-sisted of a very large company of disciples among whom were many regenerate Jewish priests. Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”, Acts 6. 5, was the first to be chosen for the special ministry of treasurership in the assembly, and all that that involved. He, with others who were selected, was above board in all matters that demanded absolute honesty, 6. 3. His character and reputation were thus blameless. This was the witness of his life.
With Stephen’s strong faith there was also spiritual power which en-abled him, as the need arose, to do wonders and miracles among the people, 6. 8. Here was something outward and tangible in a life fully dedicated to the Lord. “The people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits”, Dan. 11. 32. This had special application to Stephen, a man who knew his God, and con-stituted the witness of his labours. William Carey was guided by the same tenets as Stephen. His mottos were : “Expect great things from God” and “attempt great things for God".
In his disputations concerning the gospel message with the Jews of certain synagogues, Stephen spoke with wisdom that could neither be resisted nor gainsaid. Acts 6. 10. His miracles aroused their amazement, his masterliness their jealousy, and his message their opposition. This was the witness of his lips.
The Sanhedrin that sat in judgment on Stephen was impressed not only by what he said, but also by how he looked. His face appeared to them to be like the face of an angel, 6. 15. We do not know, nor could they have known, what an angel is like, but the description clearly indicates radiant beauty. Stephen was so accustomed to behold “as in a mirror the glory of the Lord” that he was changed “into the same image from glory to glory even as from the Lord the Spirit”, 2 Cor. 3. 18 R.v. marg. Thus, as he spoke, all who looked at him were impressed by the witness of his looks. The greater part of Acts 7 is occupied with Stephen’s defence, in the form of an historical survey, to his accusers. With undiminished fury they cast the martyr out of the city and stoned him to death. Yet – He heeded not reviling tones Nor sold his heart to idle moans, Though cursed and scorned and bruised with stones: But, looking upward, full of grace, He prayed, and in the holy place God’s glory there his eye could trace.
With his parting breath, as he kneeled down and prayed (as his crucified Lord had prayed for His persecutors) “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”, there irradiated from his heart the witness of His love.
The name Stephen means “crown”. Thus the first Christian martyr, casting the crown of his life at the feet of his Lord and Master who stood to wel-come him to his home in heaven, went in to receive the crown of life promised to all who are “faithful unto death”, Rev. 2. 10.