Stephen, the first martyr of the church age, flashes on and off the page of Holy Scripture in just three action-packed chapters in the Acts of the Apostles, yet leaves a legacy that changed the course of Christian witness forever. I believe that his finest hour came at the end of what appears to have been a short, but fruitful life. However, first let us consider the character of the man and the circumstances in which he lived for God.
At the end of Acts chapter 5, the early believers, still confined to Jerusalem, were beginning to rile the local authorities with their zealous preaching of the gospel. Having been beaten at the hands of the Jewish Council and warned to stop preaching, the apostles carried on, ‘rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name’, v. 41. Persecution was the catalyst that drove the early believers to deeper devotion to Christ, and greater dependence on God. It was at this time that the rate of Church growth accelerated from addition.2 Amidst persecution the gospel was prospering!
Sadly, an undercurrent of discontent began bubbling beneath the surface in relation to the distribution of provisions to widows, 6. 1. The great unity which marked the early believers3 was under threat. Acknowledging that this task had become too much for them to administer themselves, the apostles proposed to appoint seven others to oversee this aspect of the work. As D. L. Moody once said, ‘It is better to put 10 men to work than to try to do the work of 10 men’. ‘Look ye out among you seven men’, was the instruction given by the apostles. It’s interesting to note that Stephen and the other six men weren’t parachuted in from a Bible college, or wheeled off the production line of a spiritual training camp. They were men who were already active, and proving their worth among the company. They were men who were known and trusted by the people and who had an obvious care and interest in the people. Aren’t these the kind of men needed today?
The apostles declared the spiritual qualifications required of these men. Firstly, they were to be reputable: ‘men of honest report’. Secondly, they had to be spiritual: men ‘full of the Holy Spirit’. Thirdly, they needed to be practical: men who were ‘full of wisdom’ and, therefore, those who knew how to apply biblical knowledge in real life situations. With these criteria in mind, Stephen and six others were chosen. The outcome of their appointment was that the ‘word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith’, v. 7. Isn’t it true that the local church operates most effectively when everyone is doing that for which God has fitted them?
We are informed about several aspects of Stephen’s character. Verses 3 and 5 tell us he was ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ and so he was yielded to the will of God. Verse 3 also tells us that he was ‘full of wisdom’ and was therefore yielded to the word of God. Furthermore, in verse 8 we learn that he was ‘full of power’ and so he was also yielded to the work of God. This is the kind of man that God can use!
Such a man did not go unnoticed by the religious leaders. In verse 9 we read that ‘there arose certain of the synagogue … disputing with Stephen’. The Greek word used for ‘disputing’ is most commonly translated ‘questioning’4 and suggests that things began in a reasonable, orderly manner. However, this soon spiralled out of control.
The arrest and false accusation of innocent Stephen is reminiscent of how the Lord Jesus Christ was treated before him, and how the Apostle Paul would be treated after him.
Stephen’s faith in Christ during his trial was outwardly manifested for his accusers to see: ‘All that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel’, v. 15. There was something heavenly about this man. When they looked upon Stephen they saw a life which reflected something of the beautiful character of his Saviour. Only through hours spent in the presence of God, contemplating and reflecting on the person of Christ, can we begin to reflect something of His character in our lives. The outcome was that they looked steadfastly on him and could not take their eyes off of him. Perhaps when these men looked upon Stephen they realized that he had something they lacked. Their religion was only skin deep but this was a man who truly knew God!
As Stephen comes to the climax of his defence before the council, he courageously decries his accusers as being immovable in their traditions, and unwilling to bow to the truth. These men prided themselves in their high standards of morality and law keeping, yet their consciences were pricked at Stephen’s pointed preaching. ‘They gnashed on him with their teeth’, conjures up the image of a pack of incensed wild animals viciously setting upon him. In verse 57 we read that they ‘ran upon him with one accord’. Sadly, one of the few things which brings people together is their hatred of Christ and those who belong to Him.
Amidst the violence, Stephen had a glorious vision. Verse 55 observes that he ‘looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God’. Stephen lifted his eyes from the trials and troubles of earth. He was focussed on heaven, fixated on the glory of God, and the exalted Christ. His gaze was steadfast and so, as the rocks began to rain down upon him, he remained unmoved. What was it that captivated him as he looked into heaven? It was ‘Jesus standing’. Hebrews chapter 1 verse 3 and Hebrews chapter 10 verse 12 tell us that, having dealt with our sins on the cross, ‘He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high … on the right hand of God’. So our Lord Jesus Christ sits down to rest in His finished work, but here stands up to receive His faithful witness, Stephen.
In verse 58 we learn that they ‘cast him out of the city, and stoned him’. Yet while Stephen was cast out by men, he was crowned by God. The name Stephen means ‘crowned’ and comes from the Greek word, stephanos. There are two different Greek words for crown in the New Testament: diadema which was a royal crown, and stephanos which was the victor’s crown. While a royal crown can be inherited, a victor’s crown must be earned. In Revelation chapter 2, writing to the suffering church at Smyrna, the Lord Jesus says in verse 10, ‘be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life’. Stephen was willing to both live and die for Christ. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we are willing to die daily to self, sin, and the world, and to present ourselves as ‘living sacrifices’, Rom. 12. 1, unto God.
The Christ-like character of Stephen undoubtedly shone most brightly in the darkest hour of his life. His final words are a vivid reminder of the words of Christ upon the cross. Consider those glorious words in verse 59 which highlight his faithfulness, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit’ – reminiscent of the Saviour’s words, ‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’.5 Stephen, like his Lord, could depart, having faithfully finished the work he’d been given to do on earth. Consider too those gracious words of forgiveness in verse 60, ‘lay not this sin to their charge’ – reminding us of the words of Christ, ‘Father forgive them’.6 The language describing the final moments of Stephen’s life is appropriately beautiful, as, amidst the storm of violence erupting around him, scripture simply states that ‘he fell asleep’. What a joy it would be for this faithful servant to awake to see his Lord face to face.
Verse 2 tells us that there was great sorrow at the home call of this spiritual giant. Does it not cause us to consider whether we will be missed, and what we will leave behind when we are gone? Stephen left a great spiritual legacy. However, no individual is indispensable or irreplaceable! We are told that ‘devout men carried him to his burial’. Perhaps these would be the men who would take up the work which Stephen had left behind. As Charles Wesley once said, ‘God buries His workmen but carries on His work’. Amidst the lamentation, a fresh wave of persecution arose according to chapter 8 verse 1. As was noted previously, the outcome of persecution was further evangelization, as verse 4 tells us ‘they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word’.
The martyrdom of Stephen was the seemingly unlikely event that would unleash the gospel from the confines of Jerusalem. Worldwide evangelism began with one seemingly insignificant little life surrendered and given to the Lord. Surely, it causes us to consider what God could do with our lives if they are fully yielded to Him. God can use a small match to light a great torch. I suggest, then, that Stephen’s finest hour was his final hour, when he became the spark which set the gospel spreading like wildfire, eventually to reach ‘unto the uttermost part of the earth’, Acts 1. 8.