The Stoning of Stephen: A Bible Story Study Guide

Stephen's death by stoning helped spread Christianity

The stoning of Stephen was one of the most shocking incidents in the New Testament, a stark demonstration of the hatred Jerusalem's religious authorities had for Jesus Christ and his followers.

But more than that, it set the stage for the spread of Christianity to the rest of the known world. Because of this violent persecution, Christians began fleeing Jerusalem, and wherever they went, they took the gospel with them, planting churches and proclaiming the good news of the forgiveness of sin.

Scripture References

Acts 6 and 7.

Stoning of Stephen
Illustration of accusers stoning Stephen to death. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

The Stoning Death of Stephen Story Summary

In the early Christian church, a few years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the believers in Jerusalem put all their resources together. However, the Greek Christians complained that their widows were being ignored in the daily distribution of food.

Seven deacons were appointed by the group to oversee sharing of food and other everyday matters. Stephen, a man "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," was among them.

Stephen performed great wonders and miracles among the people of Jerusalem. Jews of the outer provinces began to argue with him, but they could not win against his Spirit-filled wisdom. So in secret, they convinced false witnesses to lie, accusing Stephen of blasphemy against Moses and God. In ancient Judaism, blasphemy was a crime punishable by death.

The accusers brought Stephen before the Sanhedrin, the great council, where the false witnesses said they heard Stephen say Jesus would destroy the Temple. Stephen launched into a powerful defense, detailing the history of the Jews from Abraham through the prophets. He concluded that the Sanhedrin had murdered the prophesied Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

The crowd became furious at him, but Stephen looked up to heaven:

"Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56, NIV)

At that, the mob dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him. They laid their coats in front of a young man named Saul of Tarsus. As he was dying, Stephen prayed to God to receive his spirit and further asked God not to hold the sin against his killers.

Stephen "fell asleep," or died. Other believers buried Stephen and mourned his death.

Major Characters

Stephen: This early Christian deacon was a zealous defender of Jesus Christ and The Way, as Christianity was called in its first few years. While his name implies he may have been Greek, Stephen was well-educated in the history of the Jewish people. The Bible says he was filled with the Holy Spirit, who gave him wisdom and courage to preach despite fierce opposition.

Synagogue of the Freedmen members: These Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia had been freed from slavery. They argued with Stephen, secretly hiring false witnesses to accuse him of blasphemy. This echoed the false witnesses who tried to testify against Jesus in his trial. After stirring up the elders and teachers of the law, these Freedmen seized Stephen and hauled him before the Sanhedrin.

High Priest: Although he is not named in the Acts account, this may have been Joseph Caiaphas, the same high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus. Regardless, the Sanhedrin was already prejudiced against Christianity, which it viewed as a threat to its position.

Saul of Tarsus: Only a minor character in this episode, the man who would go on to become the apostle Paul was chosen by Jesus to be his evangelist to the Gentiles. Paul took the gospel to the west and wrote half the New Testament.

Themes and Life Lessons

As the first Christian martyr, Stephen set the example for countless thousands of martyrs who would follow, even through today.

Martyrs are especially esteemed by God. This is shown in Revelation 6:9-11, in which martyrs in heaven are given white robes, a symbol of blessedness.

Christ is worth dying for. Christians believe this life is just a prelude to eternal life with God in heaven. Paul stated that to die "is gain." He was also martyred for Jesus.

Historical Context

The perseverance of early missionaries eventually led to the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.) converting to Christianity and making it the state religion of the Roman Empire.

Points of Interest

  • All seven appointed deacons, including Stephen, had Greek names, showing that the members of the early church considered it a universal institution, not just another sect of Judaism.
  • Under Roman law, Stephen's death was illegal. The Sanhedrin was not authorized to impose the death penalty, but the stoning appeared to be the result of mob action. There is no mention in Acts of anyone being punished for the death of Stephen.
  • Stephen's final words were similar to Jesus' last words on the cross. Stephen was the only one to say Jesus was standing, instead of sitting, at his Father's right hand.
  • Two strange things happened as a result of the death of Stephen. First, Saul began a vicious personal persecution of the Way, as the early Christian church was called. Second, Jesus struck down Saul on the Damascus Road, converting him into the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest missionaries in the history of the church.

Question for Reflection

Today, people still persecute Christians. Stephen knew what he believed and was able to defend it. Are you as well-prepared as Stephen to defend against unbelievers' attacks on Jesus?