Stephen enters the Biblical text by being elected as one of the first seven deacons (Acts 6:5). It appears he stood out from his peers as he is listed first and is characterized in language typically reserved for prophets - “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5 NASB)”.
The nascent Christian movement was growing rapidly (Acts 6:7) and Stephen’s talents (Acts 6:5, 8) placed him at the forefront. One group’s success is another’s threat and Stephen faced opposition from a contingent of Disapora Jews from the Synagogue of Freedmen (Acts 6:8). Unable to handle the truth or refute it, they convinced some men to serve as false witnesses claiming that Stephen spoke “blasphemous words against Moses and against God (Acts 6:11 NASB).”
Though the resistance began with only a small party it escalated, a riot ensued (Acts 6:14) and the incident culminated with an audience before the high priest (Acts 7:1). Throughout the charges, Stephen remained silent until he faced the high priest and when he finally spoke, he delivered one of the longest speeches in the book of Acts (Acts 7:2-53). The filibuster reviewed “salvation history” (heilsgeschichte) and concluded with the acknowledgment that the religious establishment had a long history of persecuting prophets (Acts 7:52).
The trial transformed into a lynching and Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58-60), a common method of death in such situations (II Chronicles 24:20-22; Philo (20 BCE-50 CE), Special Laws 1.54-57; Josephus (37-100), Antiquities 14.2.1). Midrash clearly outlines the protocol for stoning (Midrash Sanhedrin 6.1-4) and in the case of Stephen, it was not followed aside from holding the execution outside court in conjunction with Leviticus 24:14. This is because Stephen was a victim of lynching, not capital punishment.
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) explains:
The stoning makes clear that they thought Stephen was blaspheming. It should be noted that nothing is said about the high priest offering a verdict, no formal sentence is announced, and nothing here suggests anything other than a lynching, an act of violent passion. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 276)Stephen’s innocense is highlighted throughout the account. The text claims that “all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15 NASB).” As he died, the deacon experienced a theophany (divine appearance) uttering among his famous last words - “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56 NASB).” After asking Jesus to take him and forgive his persecutors, Stephen died (Acts 7:59-60).
Why was Stephen killed? The charge against Stephen was the same Jesus faced - was the rationale the same? Is anyone today in danger of dying for similar reasons? Should contemporary Christians pose a threat to the religious establishment?
Stephen’s death is a turning point in Christian history and the book of Acts. Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) analyzes, “Stephen is a pivotal figure: he anticipates the future success and conflict of the mission among the nations, but his death also puts a close to the Jerusalem narrative (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 112).”
The lynching made Stephen the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” comes from the Greek martyros meaning “witness”. The man who was murdered because of false witnesses remains a witness centuries after his death. If Stephen’s death was intended to be a deterrent for conversion, the action failed. As Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote, “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins (Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals, 352).”
To what lengths are you willing to go to for your faith? Are you willing to die? Are you grateful that you don’t live in a region where you need to? Do you respect others who die for their faith whatever that faith may be?
“The prophet and the martyr do not see the hooting throng. Their eyes are fixed on the eternities.” - Benjamin Cardozo (1870-1938)