Stephen in the Bible - First Christian Martyr

Meet Stephen, Early Church Deacon

Stephen in the Bible
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In the way he lived and died, Stephen catapulted the early Christian church from its local Jerusalem roots to a cause that spread across the entire world.

Little is known about Stephen in the Bible before he was ordained a deacon in the young church, as described in Acts 6:1-6. Although he was just one of seven men chosen to make sure food was fairly distributed to the Grecian widows, Stephen soon began to stand out:

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6:8, NIV)

Exactly what those wonders and miracles were, we are not told, but Stephen was empowered to do them by the Holy Spirit. His name suggests he was a Hellenistic Jew who spoke and preached in Greek, one of the common languages in Israel in that day.

Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen argued with Stephen. Scholars think these men were freed slaves from various parts of the Roman empire. As devout Jews, they would have been horrified at Stephen's claim that Jesus Christ was the much-awaited Messiah.  

That idea threatened long-held beliefs. It meant Christianity was not just another Jewish sect but something entirely different: a New Covenant from God, replacing the Old.

First Christian Martyr

This revolutionary message got Stephen hauled before the Sanhedrin, the same Jewish council that had condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy.

When Stephen preached an impassioned defense of Christianity, a mob dragged him outside the city and stoned him.

Stephen had a vision of Jesus and said he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. That was the only time in the New Testament anyone other than Jesus himself called him the Son of Man.

Before he died, Stephen said two things very similar to Jesus' last words from the cross:

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them." (Acts 7:59-60, NIV)

But Stephen's influence was even stronger after his death. A young man watching the murder was Saul of Tarsus, who would later be converted by Jesus and become the apostle Paul. Ironically, Paul's fire for Christ would mirror Stephen's.

Before he converted, however, Saul would persecute other Christians in the name of the Sanhedrin, causing early church members to flee Jerusalem, taking the gospel wherever they went. Thus, Stephen's execution began the spread of Christianity.

Accomplishments of Stephen in the Bible

Stephen was a bold evangelist who was not afraid to preach the gospel despite dangerous opposition. His courage came from the Holy Spirit. While facing death, he was rewarded with a heavenly vision of Jesus himself.

Strengths of Stephen in the Bible

Stephen was well-educated in the history of God's plan of salvation and how Jesus Christ fit into it as the Messiah. He was truthful and brave.

Life Lessons

  • The Holy Spirit equips believers to do things they could not humanly do. Stephen was a gifted preacher, but the text shows God gave him wisdom and courage.
  • What seems like a tragedy can somehow be part of God's great plan. Stephen's death had the unexpected consequence of forcing Christians to flee persecution in Jerusalem. The gospel spread far and wide as a result.
  • The full impact of our lives may not be felt until decades after our death. God's work is constantly unfolding and goes forth on his timetable.

References to Stephen in the Bible 

Stephen's story is told in chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Acts. He is also mentioned in Acts 8:2, 11:19, and 22:20.

Key Verses

Acts 7:48-49
“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:  ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?'" (NIV)

Acts 7:55-56
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (NIV)

(Sources: The New Unger's Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; The New Compact Bible Dictionary, T. Alton Bryant, editor.)