Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been martyred because of their love and service for Jesus Christ. “In Christianity, a martyr is a person considered to have died because of their testimony for Jesus or faith in Jesus. In the early church, stories depict this often occurring through death by sawing, stoning, crucifixion, burning at the stake or other forms of torture and capital punishment.” Consider:
Heb 11:37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.
So many have died for their faith in the True God in the Old and New Testaments and throughout the Christian Church up to this very day. But where did it start? Who was the first Christian martyr? His name was Stephen and we learn about him in Acts 6 and 7. Let’s start by considering …
1) Stephen’s spiritual pedigree. He was one of the men chosen to serve tables in Acts 6:2 and 5. Unlike many chosen for diaconal duties these days, Stephen was
Ac 6:5 … a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit
He was indwelt with the inseparable twins … “faith and the Holy Spirit.” Unless there is true faith in Jesus there is no Holy Spirit present! Ephesians 1:3-14 is filled with glorious doctrine. Paul expounds some of these later in the Book … for example:
Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. See that?
Salvation is by grace (free gift) through faith. That was Stephen. When God dispenses grace He gives faith as well! But He also gives the Holy Spirit!
Eph 1:13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.
That was Stephen. Another way of explaining “faith and the Holy Spirit” is being Born Again. That was Stephen and that is every real Christian! Because of this …
2) Stephen was fearless in witness, even in the face of fierce opposition.
Ac 6:9 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. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke
Stephen, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit was not only full of spiritual wisdom, he was fearless in faith … he stood up against all opposition to the gospel. He was what we call an apologist! Apologetics is the religious discipline of defending religious doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. Early Christian writers who defended their beliefs against critics and recommended their faith to outsiders were called Christian apologists. Once a person is full of faith and the Spirit, then one is able to be fearless for Jesus. You might not be able to learn the craft of apologetics, but you do know what happened to you … what you were and what you are now. Tell that! Perhaps let me add that not many people know how to share the gospel properly. It’s not that they are afraid to speak for Jesus … the problem is they don’t know what to say … but they can be taught. One of the best ways is to learn “Two ways to live” by Matthias Media.
3) Stephen was faithful in serving the Lord Jesus. The following verses show “false witnesses and charges” against him.
Ac 6:12 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.”
Yet the one thing that these verses unequivocally reveal is Stephen’s absolute faithfulness in serving Jesus as His Lord. This is more than faith and the Holy Spirit. Faithful service to Jesus contains those two ingredients but it also contains real love and commitment to Jesus. This point is the outworking and proof of genuine salvation! I like to say … “In Christian service, do whatever your hands find to do for Jesus”. This is where you will determine real love and commitment to your Lord.
4) Stephen knew what sacrificial love was. As he was becoming the first Christian Martyr, we read:
Ac 7:59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
As he was being murdered for his faith and testimony to Jesus, he could plead with God not to hold his murder against the account of his murderers. You might think this was in vain … but if this was for none other, there was one present:
Ac 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
I will suggest that the Lord Jesus used this experience as part of him being convicted of sin … but also it set the example of giving his life totally to Jesus in Christian Service. The great lesson for us today is that we need to be ready and eager to forgive those who harm us seeking to destroy our Christian witness. However painful, harmful and evil Gospel enemies might be, largely they don’t know what they are doing. At times they might even think they are doing good but they just don’t know and understand their wickedness. Think of Saul who became Paul. He gave his approval to Stephen’s murder! If God can forgive and save Saul and use him for great Gospel Service, He could do this to any enemy of the Faith … and if He forgives, we too need to forgive too. Although forgiveness is hard, Stephen stands tall as our example. We too can pray … “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Lord our God, thank You for providing such great giants of the faith in Scripture as our examples of true Biblical Christianity. Help us to model Stephen for the Lord Jesus sake. Amen.