The Martyrdom of Stephen
Even though Stephen and the other six deacons were supposedly appointed purely to handle the distribution of food and charitable aid to the Hellenist widows, it appears he also taught in the synagogues. In particular the “Synagogue of the Freedmen”.
During the civil war of 60 BC in Judea, many Jews were taken to Rome as slaves. Often slaves were granted freedom after a time of long and faithful service and their descendants appear to have moved back to North Africa, as Hellenists.
“And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia [Antioch]), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.”
But what he was teaching about Jesus did not go down well with the Hellenists, and they started spreading rumours that he was trying to undermine the Jewish faith.
“Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.
They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place [Temple] and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.’ And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.'”
Acts 7 begins with, “The high priest [Caiaphas] said, ‘Are these things so?'” The rest of the chapter is a very long speech that Stephen makes to the Sanhedrin. I will not repeat it here, but will summarize its intention.
The primary aim of his speech was to show that from the time of Abraham, God chose to reveal himself whenever and wherever he chose. He does not live in the Temple, or any other building.
Stephen also points out that even Moses was rejected as God’s appointed leader, “This Moses whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?‘” [Ex#2:14]
He also says that Moses predicted the coming of Jesus, “This is that Moses who said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear. ’” [Deut#18:15-19]
He then brings up the subject of the golden calf, something the Sanhedrin would rather not be reminded about, remembering it as an unspeakable deed, “And they made a calf in those days, offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.” [Deut#9:16]
Stephen then goes on to remind them that The Ark of the Covenant was brought to the land of the Gentiles, then put in Solomon’s Temple. But God does not live there, “However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands.” [Is#66:1-2]
To end his speech, Stephen then puts the Sanhedrin on the spot by saying Israel has always rejected the word of God, “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! 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 foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the Law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”
His arguments could not be disputed, and the Sanhedrin was enraged, “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”
This was all too much for them to bear and they rose up and killed him, “Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
The story continues into the beginning of Acts 8, “Now Saul [a Pharisee] was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.
As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.”
Why the Romans allowed this execution by the Jewish ritualistic stoning is not mentioned, but it is something that was not permitted at the time. There is speculation that it was done outside the city walls, and they may not have known about it. Luke does not say exactly where it was done.
Stephen is considered to be Christianity’s first martyr, and Saul will go on to become a very influential person in the rest of the New Testament.