What do we remember about Stephen in the bible? I guess for those who are familiar with him, many will remember him because he was the first martyr. However, there is much more about Stephen and what he represents rather than being the first martyr.
We are first introduced to Stephen in Acts 6 when the hellenists (Greek speaking Jews) were complaining to the Hebrews that their wives were being overlooked with the daily distribution. The daily distribution is the giving to each according to their needs, whether it be money or food. Greek speaking Jews clearly felt that their widows were being overlooked whilst the Hebrew speaking Jews widows were getting their needs met. The twelve disciples got wind of this but recognised, they could not keep their eye on everything and needed to delegate this task to other. This is where Stephen comes in. He was chosen alongside 6 others to oversee the task (wait on tables) to ensure everything was distributed fairly. This showed Stephens humility, that although he was a fine speaker full of faith and wisdom, he was not too proud to ‘wait on tables’.
Of course, there was much more to Stephen that overseeing this daily task. Stephen was well versed in scripture and was gifted with wisdom as well as being deemed to be full of faith and the Holy Spirit. We can learn a lot about Stephen just from his arrest and the speech he gave to the Jewish council and High Priest. Stephen certainly wasn’t afraid to stand up for Jesus and he didn’t run a mile when confronted with his faith and what he had been preaching about. There was no such thing as compromise or tolerance for other views in his vocabulary. The Jews did not like what Stephen was doing or preaching because it was a challenge to their authority, much like Jesus and how he challenged the authority and powers of the same Jewish councils and priests.
Stephens Speech Before the High Priest
When Stephen was arrested after the people bore false witness against him, when the council questioned him, Stephen went on to give a whole run down of Israels history as a platform for his defence of the blasphemy bought against him. Not only was Stephen creating a firm foundation for his defence, he was preparing his words to bring them to an ultimate climax of showing the council and the High priest how they had rejected Christ and not recognised Him as the true Messiah and prophesied in the Old Testament. So in other words, it isn’t Stephen who was guilty of blasphemy, but the Jewish leaders who denied Christ and the salvation Jesus offered. Quite a massive thing to be stood before the High council and accusing them of blasphemy! However, this was Stephens defence against all those who heard him. The very thing he was accused of was the very thing his accusers were guilty of themselves.
Stephen spoke about Israels historical rejection of God and apostasies and to bring his point to a mighty conclusion, Stephen accused those in his hearing of following in their fathers footsteps, they were just as bad, still rejecting Christ and turning their faces away from Him (Acts 6:51-53):
51 You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.
52 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,
53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.β
Stephen certainly didn’t hold back, he was courageous, full of faith and the Holy Spirit and did not seek a plea for his life, yet was faithful to God. He created a defence based on fact probably knowing that it would not buy his freedom as he concluded by calling them ‘stiff-necked people’ and rightly accused them of betraying and murdering the Righteous One who was of course Jesus. They would have know exactly who Stephen was talking about, but Stephen wasn’t holding back.
Stephen put to death
Of course the council and the High Priest (more likely at that time to be Caiaphas, who was in office until a.d. 36), wasn’t exactly going to submit and confess their sin, so of course, the only cause of action when someone challenges their authority with such conviction was to put Stephen to death (as I am sure Stephen would have expected), infant, Acts 6:54 tells us that when they heard what Stephen had said, they were enraged and ground their teeth at him. In other words, they were fuming! But a Wonderful thing happened to Stephen whilst the council and High Priest was probably hauling abuse and shouting at him, scripture tells us that Stephen looked up and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father – oh what peace and joy must have filled Stephens heart at that time. Imagine that, a load of people after your blood and yet you see into the heavens and see the one you have been defending in His glory. Amazing!
What is interesting is that Stephen did not want what they did to him to be held against them. Stephen saw people not with worldly eyes, but with spiritual eyes, in other words, Stephen knew that we are in the world, but there is much more than just this world. It was important that Stephen did not try to wriggle out of a difficult situation when he was accused of blasphemy. Stephen knew it was not him who was guilty of this, but it was more important to Stephen to show his accusers they were the ones who was guilty of blasphemy and make them see their own guilt and sin. Not because he was wanting to accuse them, but he wanted them to see their wicked ways and turn from them, this was more important than trying to save his own skin.
We can see from all of this that Stephen did not conform to the believes and wishes of others. Although he wise, full of knowledge and the Holy Spirit as well as being a gifted speaker, he was humble enough to wait on tables. He would not compromise and he loved his accusers enough to not try to save his own skin, but to try to show his accusers of their ways in the hope that they would turn from their sin and follow Christ. Stephen is someone who is very relevant and who we can learn much from even today.