On this feast day when we remember the first Christian martyr, we read a devotion from Men and Women of the Word: 45 Meditations on Biblical Heroes.
2 Chronicles 24:17–22
Acts 6:8–7:2a, 51–60
The word martyr means “witness,” and Stephen was a true martyr in that he both died for his Christian faith and proclaimed the Gospel boldly until the very end. Though our hearts ache every time a Christian is persecuted, we thank God for using Stephen’s witness to share the Good News with countless people.
Some soldiers never get to see the Purple Heart they have won for heroism. They die as they earn the award. The medal is given to their families after their death.
In the long list of martyrs in the New Testament age, Stephen stands as the first Christian “killed in action.” At the climax of his heroic defense of the faith, a volley of stones fell upon him as he knelt praying the prayer of his Lord: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen did not live to see the far-reaching effect this loyalty to the end had upon the infant church.
Stephen was not a pastor. He was a layman in the Jerusalem congregation of the Christian church. In the course of time he had been appointed to the office of deacon. His duty was to see that the widows of the Greek Christians were not neglected. As he performed this office, Stephen was practicing the “pure and undefiled” religion described by St. James (1:27). This meant visiting the widows and fatherless in their affliction and keeping himself unspotted from the world. This kind of religion is for every Christian to practice, pastor and layman alike. Stephen was a model of it. And he backed up his charity work with persuasive testimony so that those who disputed with him “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10).
No one quarreled with Stephen’s charity work. Stephen’s fault, as they saw it, was not that he had an inner conviction about Christ, but that he dared to be vocal about it. But Stephen felt that he had a confession to make, and he was going to make it. For it was this faith that had changed his life and made him truly concerned about the poor and neglected people. It was this faith that had brought him, orphaned and wretched in sin, into the bliss of the heavenly Father’s family.
Though his critics kept on harassing Stephen, they failed to silence him. They would have to resort to more forceful means. So a group of them secretly instigated some false witnesses to bring a charge of blasphemy against Stephen before the council. Now this was the same accusation that was laid to Jesus before the very same Sanhedrin. At that time too the high priest expressed amazed indignation at the accused standing before him. All around him Stephen could see men who, as Jesus had said, “devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers” (Mark 12:40). Stephen stood before them, his face like that of an angel. The council ranged about him, gnashing their teeth at him in rage. The contrast continues to the very end. Stephen stood gazing into heaven, his eyes glistening with the vision of the Son of God standing at the right hand of God. They cried with a loud voice as they stopped their ears and rushed together upon him, cast him out of the city, and stoned him.
There Stephen fell to his knees, praying the prayer of forgiveness his Lord had prayed for these same people. “And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).
If medals were given for this type of bravery and loyalty, they would have to be awarded to Stephen’s heirs (in this case, the church, us) posthumously, and they might very well be inscribed with the words of Heb. 11:38: “Of whom the world was not worthy.”
Thanks to You, Lord Jesus, for planting Your Gospel at this place, and gathering a Church that continues in Your Word. Drive far from us the indifference and apathy of these latter evil days. Cause our hearts to burn with zeal for the truth of Your Word, and preserve Your doctrine true at this place, that our children after us may be still praising You. Amen.
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Devotional reading is adapted from Men and Women of the Word: 45 Meditations on Biblical Heroes, pages 133–35 © 1964, 1996 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Prayer is from Reading the Psalms with Luther, page 181 © 2007 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.