Stephen, the First Christian Martyr

Stephen, the First Christian Martyr

by Jenny Arnold

A few months ago, I wrote an article on the present day persecuted church. If you have not read this, it can be found on the Telford Elim website – and just prior to December 25, Pastor Leslie published a joint article on the Advent season and the 12 days of Christmas which culminate in the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

Whilst researching for these articles, I also briefly researched the persecution of the early church and found that December 26 is known as the Feast Day of St Stephen – in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is celebrated on December 27. In the Anglosphere countries we know this day as Boxing Day.

Stephen (Stefanos in Greek) was one of the 7 Deacons assisting the Apostles in the establishment of the first Church related in the New Testament in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
The story of Stephen is written for posterity in Chapter 7 of the Book of Acts, and a reading of this chapter will give you the context for this article.

Stephen’s Martyrdom

Stephen is known as the first martyr of the Christian Church – he was stoned to death approximately 2 years following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in AD35. In Acts 7, you will read that he was called before the Sanhedrin to account for his activities in witnessing to Jesus Christ. Following his Spirit-filled address to them, he was dragged outside the walls of Jerusalem by an angry crowd and died by stoning.

Over the past several years, I have read several books about stoning to death; some of them set in present day Afghanistan where it is still practised as a punishment under Sharia Law for apostasy, and for women believed to have committed adultery.

It is a vile death, and the reports I have read recount that a narrow trench is dug in which the victim stands with only the head and shoulders above ground. The aim is to stone the head therefore.

Eventually the victim will collapse but death may take a while in coming as the victim may at first only be unconscious. As with crucifixion, death may come much later from loss of blood, fever, dehydration, infected wounds or sheer exhaustion.

In various works of art, Stephen is usually depicted in traditional Deacon’s vestments, and holding a palm branch which is the symbol of martyrdom (reference the palm branches thrown down as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt (John12, Matthew 21).  Sometimes he is also depicted with a stone on his head to show the manner of his execution.

In Orthodox churches he is known as the patron saint of stonemasons, deacons and, rather strangely, horses.

St Stephen’s Day

What is the significance of the Feast day of Stephen coming so immediately after December 25 with all its joy and wonder – some Eastern Orthodox Churches hold Christmas day on January 6 and St Stephen’s Day January 7?

The traditional, Catholic and Orthodox Churches decided to celebrate the brutal martyrdom of Stephen so soon after all that light, joyful singing and comforting celebration of Christmas Day.

As a result of Stephen’s martyrdom, many in the Jerusalem Church were scattered in the persecution that followed. As they were scattered they also took the Gospel to the Gentiles. Jesus brought the Gospel, and Stephen’s martyrdom sent the Gospel out into the world.

Perhaps these thoughts might cause us to think again about the true meaning of the Nativity season. The Gospel is more important than we can imagine.

Sharing the Gospel is Costly

The Christian walk is not an easy one, and neither does Christ say it will be easy. We can learn a great deal from the life of Stephen. Stephen’s story is as much a story of hope and faith as any other in the persecuted church today. At that time, preaching the Gospel was a dangerous mission and Stephen did not shirk it.

According to Acts 6:5, Stephen was a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit. When he was seized and taken before the Sanhedrin, Stephen was not afraid to speak the truth of the Gospel.

He knew what speaking God’s truth may lead to, for he already had witnessed much persecution – but unlike many today, he was not governed by political correctness and stood firm.

And finally, Stephen was not afraid to give his life for the Lord Jesus, and felt great peace in doing so.

As we look at our present world, its ideologies and post-truth nonsense, it may be one thing to speak God’s truth but quite another perhaps to give up your life for it. But this is what many in the persecuted church are still doing 2000 years later.

Stephen’s Mercy

Alongside this last point is another very important and significant lesson: Stephen was merciful towards his persecutors. He imitated the One he worshipped. In the midst of tremendous pain, Stephen cries out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (Acts 7:60).

And perhaps this is why the Feast of St Stephen features directly following the first day of Christmas and before the next 10 days of the Twelve Days of Christmas: Jesus didn’t just come to us as a small baby to wonder at and coo over. No, He came as a man so that God could show His great mercy and love to the world in the death of His only Son.
And just like his Master, Stephen also suffered death and showed great mercy and love towards his tormentors.

This Christmas season consider Christ not just in the manger, but as a man who came to endure the Cross for you and for me. 

For me, meditating on this chapter in the New Testament and referring back to the article on the persecuted church, it also shows me what an easy walk I have. I do not know what the Lord may, or may not, ask of me in the time to come, but I do know that thus far, He has met all my needs, has set me free from the chains of my sin, and given me the hope of eternal life with Him when my life on this earth will end, as it surely will.

What is the Lord saying to you as you read this article?

A Prayer

Oh Lord of Gory. Thank You for the example of Your servant Stephen. We thank You that as an Imitator of Christ, he forgave those who persecuted him.

Give us the desire to perfectly imitate You also and forgive those who sin against us – just as You have forgiven us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.