Study 5 STEPHEN: FIRST CHRISTIAN MARTYR
(Scripture Portions: Acts 6: 5-15; 7: 1-60)
All that is recorded in the New Testament about Stephen is contained in Acts 6:5-15; 7:1-60; 8:2; 11:19 and 22:20. He was certainly one of God’s “spiritual giants”, and his gracious ministry was suddenly cut short by martyrdom. We think of him, quite rightly, as the first of the Christian martyrs. Very many have followed in his footsteps; indeed, today many are following in this train by laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel.
Stephen was one of the “seven” (Acts 6:3) selected to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2); but it is interesting to note that almost immediately after this choice had been made, Stephen did “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Like so many whom God used, and of whom we read in the book of Acts, Stephen was a man who was “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom…and grace…and power…” (Acts 6:3 and 8). There are seven important truths which emerge from the record of his life and ministry:
1. The Greatest Service for God, and one in which every believer can share, is to shine for Him.
Not all of us can preach, perform miracles and contend for the faith like Stephen, but all of us can shine for the Lord, as he did – look up Acts 6:15. This is a most gracious ministry that is within the reach of every Christian. Moses experienced the blessing of a shining countenance – look up Exodus 34:29,30 and 35; and of our Lord we read that He was transfigured upon the holy mount – look up Matthew 17:2. We have all met Christians whose faces have literally shone with the glory of the Lord – but what is the secret of a shining countenance? It is an open secret – look up 2 Corinthians 3:18!
2. Spirit-filled workers are always mighty in the scriptures.
Have you noticed this? In Acts chapter 7, Stephen gave a complete survey of Jewish history. What a living illustration he was of 2 Timothy 2:15! Whenever God has a servant whom He is greatly using, you will find that that servant is one who feeds upon and who is filled with the Word. And to be filled with the Word is the way to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be filled with the Word. It is the privilege of every believer to be filled with the Holy Spirit – look up Ephesians 5:18; but the important thing is our capacity for the Holy Spirit. A “babe in Christ” may be as truly “filled” as a mature believer; both may be filled, but the capacity of the mature believer is infinitely greater than that of the “babe”. The only way to maturity is to feed upon the Word of God, and thus this is also the way to a greater capacity for His fullness – look up Colossians 3:16.
3. Faithfulness to God and persecution are inseparably linked together.
Read Acts 7:54,58 and 59. Stephen was determined to be faithful to God and to declare all the truth – as we learn from Acts 20:27, and this resulted in his enemies becoming enraged. But Stephen knew that the Lord had said that the pathway of obedience and service would by no means be easy – look up Matthew 5:10-12; John 16:33; Acts 5:41; Philippians 1:29 and 1 Peter 4:12-19, and compare Hebrews 11:34-37. The important thing is to be in God’s will and to be submissive to Him, whether it leads to being “sawn in two” or to “escape”.
4. True faith endures in trials through seeing Him who is invisible.
Of Moses, we read that by faith he did just that – look up Hebrews 11:27; and Stephen did the same – look up Acts 7:54,58,59, and verses 55 and 56! “When the outlook is bad, try the uplook!” – look up 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul and Silas were able to pray and sing praises to God even when they were suffering in prison. They proved the sufficiency of God’s grace to uphold them – look up Acts 16:22-25.
5. A Christian is one who is like Christ – Christ-like.
Being a Christian is not only a matter of profession (of what we say), but of possession (of what we are). A Christian is one who possesses Christ, and to possess Him is to become like Him – look up Galatians 2:20 and Colossians 1:27. Stephen was like his Lord; he was meek and lowly and he prayed for those who despitefully used him – look up Matthew 5:44 and 11:29. In his death, like Jesus, Stephen called upon God – compare Acts 7:59 and Matthew 27:46; he committed his spirit to God – compare Acts 7:59 and Luke 23:46, and see also 1 Peter 4:19; and he prayed for his enemies – compare Acts 7:60 and Luke 23:34. Are we like Jesus?
6. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
One of those who watched the stoning of Stephen and listened to his testimony and his dying prayer was Saul of Tarsus – look up Acts 7:58 and 22:20; and there is little doubt that the whole incident wrought deep conviction in the heart and conscience of this young enemy of the gospel. Thus the death of Stephen was at once fruitful in Saul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-17). But that was not the only immediate benefit of his death – look up Acts 11:19. The Christians were scattered, and so the gospel was spread! What a great truth is contained in Philippians 1:12!
7. To the believer, death is but a falling asleep.
Note the last three words in Acts 7:60. He had already committed his spirit to the Lord (verse 59) – but it was his body which fell asleep – look up and compare 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. Stephen was “away from the body” and “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). Death = sleep. How beautiful, for sleep means rest after toil, and freedom from fear, sorrow and all the strain of life. In sleep we pass from one day to another, and for the Christian, death is the short passage from earth’s little day of trouble to Heaven’s eternal day of glory! You and I may never sleep the sleep of death, but if we do, there need be no fear, for see 1 Corinthians 15:51-58!