And they stoned Stephen, invoking and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice saying, “Lay not this sin to their charge”. And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord.
Yesterday we celebrated the great feast of the Nativity of our Saviour and today we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. St. Stephen followed the example of his Master in blessing his persecutors and dying praying for those who were stoning him. He was the first of the noble army of martyrs, of those whose Christian faith cost them their lives.
But how did it come about that St. Stephen was stoned to death? The earliest followers of Jesus in Jerusalem of whom we read about in the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer, and were one in joy and in simplicity of heart. However, tensions soon emerged between those who are called the “Hebrews” and those who are called the “Hellenists” or “Grecians” (Acts 6). The “Hellenists” were not non- Jews, but rather Jews who spoke and worshipped in Greek (using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible) as opposed to the “Hebrews” who were Jews who worshipped in Hebrew. It is important to realise that by this time Greek speaking Jews existed not only among the Diaspora outside the land of Israel, but also existed in Jerusalem. There were Greek speaking synagogues in Jerusalem as well as Greek speaking synagogues among the diaspora. There was inevitably a certain tension between these two groups and it seems that this was also a problem for the first followers of Jesus, who saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, those in whom the prophecies were now being fulfilled. There was division over the daily distribution of food between those who worshipped in Hebrew and those who worshipped in Greek. The Apostles decided that it was not right that they should set aside the Word of God to serve tables so they ordained seven men by the laying on of hands, especially for this ministry of service (they have traditionally been seen as the first deacons). Among the seven whom they ordained was St. Stephen. He was active not only in the ministry of service among the needy, but also in the preaching of the Gospel, a man “full of grace and fortitude” who did “great wonders and signs among the people”. “Now there arose some of that which is called the synagogue of the Libertines and the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia, disputing with Stephen: and they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit that he spoke.” He was charged by them with saying that Jesus of Nazareth would destroy the temple (presumably a reference to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple) and change the customs that had been handed down from Moses. St. Stephen was therefore brought before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) charged with these offences.
In his defence, St. Stephen delivered a remarkable speech in which he sought to show that it in fact it was his accusers rather than him who had radically misunderstood the purposes of God (Acts 7). St. Stephen began by reaffirming the faith of Israel that God had originally appeared to Abraham summoning him to leave his country and his kindred and go to another land with the promise that one day his descendants would inherit the land. When his descendants had found themselves in slavery in Egypt he had brought them release from the house of bondage and they had been led by Moses into the wilderness in preparation for their entry into the promised land. Part of the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai had involved instructions about the building of a tabernacle which would be an outward sign of God’s presence among his people. Now traditionally it was supposed that when the people entered the land and set a king over them to lead them, the building of the temple by King Solomon was a natural development of the same principle that had led the people under Moses to build a tabernacle in the wilderness. However, St. Stephen now said that the reality was very different. The Most High did not dwell in temples made with hands, and the Temple in Jerusalem was in fact a poor substitute for the tabernacle in the wilderness. The building of the Temple was for St. Stephen a sign not of the faithfulness of the people to the covenant, but rather their unfaithfulness. They were a stiff necked and uncircumcised people who had always resisted the prophets and had now culminated their history of rebellion against God by repudiating the one in whom the hope of the prophets had finally reached fulfilment.
At this point the people were so enraged that they seized Stephen and cast him out of the city and stoned him to death. It seems that the trial was never properly brought to an end and what happened was a case of lynch law. St. Stephen said that he saw “the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” At his trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus had been charged with blasphemy for saying that, though they currently sat in judgement on him in the future they would see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the power of God and coming with the clouds of heaven (in other words that he would share in the divine sovereignty as the Judge of Men). St. Stephen declared that he saw Jesus, who had suffered, died and rose again, now standing on the right hand of God (in other words that Jesus is already, by virtue of his resurrection and ascension, sharing in the divine sovereignty). But St. Stephen not only confessed to faith in Jesus, he also then lived out his faith by following the example of Jesus. He prayed for his persecutors. As Jesus had said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, and “Into thy hands I commend my spirit” so St. Stephen prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge”. Instead of being filled with bitterness at their murderous hatred towards him he turned the other cheek and went the second mile in praying for his persecutors. He thereby set an example, as the first Christian martyr, for the subsequent noble army of martyrs for all generations to come.
Let us pray that we will be faithful to the example and the witness of St. Stephen in our own time and place.