By Marvin Taylor
What faith! What courage! Even the mention of Stephen’s name elicits our admiration of this first martyr (excluding Jesus himself) for the cause of Christianity. The conflict started in the heated anger of public debate and continued in a scene of mob violence. Stephen’s clear presentation of truth evoked the worst actions from hearts too hard to receive God’s message (Acts 6:9-10). Stephen had refused to be controlled by public sentiment or manipulated by unjustified human anger. He preached hard against the sins that plagued his opponents at that time. Lis-ten to his concluding statements to the historic sermon which had traced Israel’s history of rebel-lion against God: “Ye stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of Whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it” (Acts 7:51-53). Stephen’s words cost him his life. He died a painful death by stoning at the hands of evil men whom he had loved enough to teach the truths they needed to hear the most.
Young Saul of Tarsus was a consenting bystander (Acts 8:1). As a Jew from Cilicia, he was probably at the initial debate scene at the synagogue for Cilicians (Acts 6:9). His education at the feet of Gamaliel and his patriotic zeal funneled through the eyes of the Pharisee sect, pointed him to opposition of this new sect of disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. He must have heard the testimony of the bribed false witnesses before the Council because he came to a decision to consent to the stoning of Stephen. This was demonstrated by his holding the coats of those who actually threw the stones that battered and bruised Stephen to death (Acts 7:58).
Saul moved from spectator to participant in the persecution movement against the disciples of Christ. If you had been a disciple of Christ in Jerusalem at that time, you would have feared that Saul and his men would come to your house and drag you to jail (Acts 8:3). His zealous efficiency as a persecutor led him to seek authorization to follow fleeing believers to Damascus, arrest them, and extradite them to Jerusalem. However, when he arrived at Damascus, he was not the same man. Yes, it was the same physical form, except that Saul was now blind, but he no longer had any taste for punishing followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Quite to the contrary, he now fasted and prayed, and when he was commanded by Ananias to “arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16), that is exactly what he did (Acts 9:18). His spirit had been fully transformed. He had gone from Saul of Tarsus, expert antagonist of Jesus’ followers, to Paul the most industrious apostle of Jesus Christ.
What had happened on the road to Damascus? Persons like Saul would not make such a drastic change in their lives without good reason. In Luke’s commentary (Acts 9), as well as Paul’s teaching to Felix (Acts 22) and Agrippa (Acts 26), the appearance of the resurrected Jesus and his words are the historic keys that unlock the mystery of the unexpected change. Indeed, Saul’s metamorphosis becomes one of the strongest evidences to counter the doubts of skeptics of Jesus’ resurrection of all subsequent ages.
Notice how the newness of life of the apostle Paul merges with the lifestyle that Stephen had adopted (and probably would have continued had his life been spared). Stephen had preached Jesus as the Son of God in the synagogue in Jerusalem. In Damascus, Saul (Paul) “preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Stephen’s opponents in debate were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spoke (Acts 6:10). The Jewish rivals of Saul in Damascus were confounded (Acts 9:22). Stephen was stoned to death by an angry mob. The converted Saul made an enemy of the governor of Damascus but escaped by being lowered down the city wall in a basket (2 Cor. 11:32-33).
When Paul returned to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, the parallels to Stephen’s life become even more striking. Imagine Paul coming to identify with the congregation in Jerusalem. They knew him as an angry, young man who had wreaked havoc upon the church there. Some may have been imprisoned by him. Some may have had family or friends imprisoned or executed through his efforts. Barnabas must have mustered all his powers of persuasion to convince them of the true conversion of Saul. What faith it took for them to glorify God for Paul and the work he was doing (Gal.1:22-24). When Paul got settled, he disputed with the “Grecians” (Acts 9:29). These “Grecians” would be like the “Grecians” in the church at Jerusalem who had murmured against the “Hebrews” in the case of the Hellenistic widows being neglected (Acts 6:1). These were Jews who spoke the Greek language and adopted more of the Greek culture. This would be descriptive of those who would frequent the synagogue of the Libertines, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians where Stephen had his debate. The result was quite similar, the “Grecians” “. . . went about to slay him” (Acts 9:29). His former enemies who had become his adopted spiritual family, now intervened and escorted him to safety in Caesarea from where he took a ship home to Tarsus (Acts 9:30).
Paul couldn’t undo his past sins but what a cleansing effect it must have had for him to pick up the banner from Stephen and carry on the battle, especially in returning to Jerusalem and showing them the change in his life and teaching. How Stephen must have smiled from the spiritual realm, in seeing his work being furthered and Christ’s cause being advanced from this once unlikely source!
If we had been disciples of Christ in Jerusalem and had known Stephen, would we have wondered why God would allow such a terrific worker for the Lord to be put to death? With our hindsight, the Lord’s plan comes into focus. Stephen’s martyrdom led to followers of Christ boldly step-ping forth to be the pallbearers at Stephen’s funeral (Acts 8:2). As other disciples in Jerusalem were forced to flee, they took the gospel as a valued part of their baggage (Acts8:3-4). As the soldiers in the war with Mexico used the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo,” so these soldiers of Christ could have used the motto, “Remember Stephen.” And then there was the lifestyle, dedication, and courage of Stephen that became an abiding encouragement and model for the apostle Paul.
This whole philosophy of trying to kill the cause of Christ by murder was a total failure. It failed in the crucifixion of Jesus. It failed in the slaying of Stephen. Indeed it completely backfired, because it just gave the Lord’s followers that much more determination to never let die the cause for which Christ and Stephen sacrificed their lives.
The closing scene of Stephen’s earthly life pictures the heavens opening and his seeing Jesus sitting at the right hand of God and Stephen saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). As Paul ultimately faces his execution at the hands of the Romans, he reflects without regret on the past and looks with a “Stephen-like” optimism to the future. He writes, “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Hence-forth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.”
Do we remember Stephen and use his life as an encouragement to be faithful soldiers of Christ in the 20th century? Have we developed the spirit of martyrdom which is vital to having the moral courage (virtue 2 Pet. 1:5) it takes to be a true disciple of Christ? (Luke 14:26). Although we may not actually give our lives for “the cause,” by having a willingness to do so, we are prepared to face the lesser trials and tribulations that this life may present to tempt us to stop standing for what is right and to turn to religious worldliness. Let us each live that we may face death and judgment with the same faith and courage as did both Stephen and Paul.
Guardian of Truth XLI: 5 p. 10-11
March 6, 1997