The price of faithfulness can seem great, but the reward is immeasurable. We remember Stephen as the church’s first martyr. We should remember him, too, as a bold example of unflinching faith and character.
For centuries, people believed that Aristotle was right when he claimed the heavier an object is, the faster it will fall to earth. But according to legend—and one biographer—Galileo, a professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa, summoned fellow professors to the base of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then, from the tower he released a cannon ball and a small musket ball at the same time, and they landed at the same time. Still, the conventional wisdom that a heavier object will fall faster prevailed.
In 1609, Galileo built a telescope and discovered mountains and craters on the moon. More significantly, his observations led Galileo to insist that the earth is not fixed in space, with the sun and planets revolving around it, but rather that the earth and planets circle the sun. He was denounced by the Roman Catholic Church and summoned to stand trial for heresy before a Roman inquisition. He was found guilty and sentenced to permanent house arrest.
It would take another century before opposition to the idea that the sun, rather than the earth, is at the center of the solar system died down and it was widely accepted that Galileo was not a heretic but had been right all along. In 1992, some 300 years after condemning Galileo, the Vatican publicly acknowledged the church’s error.
Can you imagine risking your life by standing up against the organized religion of your world, the academic leaders of your world, and the public opinion of your day? Well, here in Acts chapter 6, a man is about to stand up to his world regarding the truth of Jesus Christ.
He is introduced in Acts 6:8 as a man “full of grace and power.” His name, Stephen, comes from stephanos, which means crown. He will certainly live up to his name and, after preaching only one sermon, wear the crown of a martyr—the first martyr of the New Testament dispensation.
We are told in verse 9 that Stephen is debating Hellenistic Jews associated with a synagogue in Jerusalem. These are Greek-speaking Jews from Cyrene and Alexandria, in North Africa, and Cilicia and Asia, in what is now modern-day Turkey.
Verse 10 records, “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Since they cannot refute him, they turn to accusing him of blasphemy; they seize him and carry him off to the Sanhedrin. It all happens so fast, and I have often thought that if Stephen was married or had children or parents, there was no time to even say farewell.
When they arrive before the supreme court of Israel, false witnesses claim he has spoken against the temple and against Moses and the law.
You might expect Stephen to be panicked and biting his nails at this sudden turn of events, but we are told in verse 15, “All who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” This either indicates a supernatural glow or his calm demeanor.
With that, we arrive at Acts chapter 7, where Stephen responds to the high priest’s question, “Are these things so?” (verse 1).
Stephen does not directly address the charges against him but instead launches into a lengthy sermon reviewing Israel’s history in some fifty-two verses! This s a brilliant sermon that highlights God’s plan for Israel and addresses the self-righteous Jewish leaders. In fact, Stephen’s verdict will be clear: the rejection of Jesus Christ is nothing less than Israel’s rebellion against the God they claim to worship.
He begins in verse 2:
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia … and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’” (verses 2-3)
Stephen begins appropriately with Abraham, the Father of the Hebrew nation. Abraham responded to God’s promise of an heir and a future nation by faith in God’s word. God gave Abraham and Sarah a son, Isaac, who became the father of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Then beginning in verse 9, Stephen tells the familiar story of Joseph, whom God used to save his family, including his father Jacob and his jealous brothers who sold him into slavery. Joseph’s story is a reminder that the nation’s forefathers were jealous of Joseph and wanted to be rid of him. We were told earlier, back in the Gospel of Mark (15:10), that the nation’s leaders —the Sanhedrin!—had delivered up Jesus because of their envy.
In verse 17, Stephen turns to Moses and how God raised him up to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Egyptians. But Stephen reminds his audience that Moses was initially rejected by the people he came to deliver. Note his words here in verse 25:
“[Moses] supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand.”
Remember, Stephen has been accused of blaspheming Moses. But here he is comparing Moses with the Messiah. Both Christ and Moses were sent from God, both were initially rejected by the nation, and yet both came to deliver Israel. Stephen is not blaspheming Moses; he is honoring him as the forerunner of Israel’s divine Redeemer.
Notice that Stephen corrects the theology of the Sanhedrin in verses 44-50. They revere the temple and are accusing Stephen of speaking disrespectfully of this holy place. But Stephen reminds them in verse 48 that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.”
In other words, “You’re so caught up with your tradition and your ritual and your building, that you’re missing the truth about Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Israel, who only months earlier had stood in this temple and said, ‘I am the light of the world’” (John 8:12).
Stephen then concludes his sermon with this powerful verdict:
“You stiff-necked people … you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (verses 51-53)
With this sweeping statement, Stephen turns the courtroom around. He is not on trial—they are! He is not guilty of blaspheming God—they are! He is not guilty of ignoring the Scriptures—they are!
Of course, the Sanhedrin members are enraged. Stephen is fully aware of where things are headed, but he goes on to tell them, “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 56). Stephen is making a direct connection between this messianic title, the Son of Man, and the Lord Jesus, who had claimed this title for Himself. Stephen effectively says, “I see Jesus sharing the throne of God Himself.”
Well, the Sanhedrin explodes with anger, and the mob takes Stephen from the city to stone him to death. His final words are recorded in verses 59-60:
He called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
When Stephen said earlier that he saw “the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” I would like to think that the Lord was giving him a standing ovation for his faithful testimony—the testimony of the first New Testament believer to wear the martyr’s crown.
Beloved, you don’t have to die a martyr’s death to receive the commendation of the Lord. Just serve Him today, in whatever way He has designed for you to live, and He will be just as pleased with you as He was with Stephen.
 See the articles on “Galileo” and “Heliocentrism” at Wikipedia.org.