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The First Christian Martyr

January 9, 2022


Pastor Peder Kling


Sermon begins at minute 36:54. Autoplay is on, so "unmute" to listen.

Ordinary Boldness in Evangelism?

Have you ever heard the story of a martyr, perhaps even Stephen, and asked yourself this question—“Would I have it in me?”. “Will I stay the course, if I’m found in that position?” Perhaps you’re convicted that you’re not even the sort of person who would put yourself into a troublesome position like that in the first place. We often don’t need to work hard at keeping our faith more private and personal—it’s awkward to bring Jesus up with the coworker. Or if Jesus does come up, we might do everything e can to not let it become a source of deep conflict or offense. That’s not always bad, by the way. First Peter 3:15 tells us to be ready to defend our faith “with gentleness and respect”. 


That said, I think the question of boldness with the gospel can be a difficult one for us to navigate—“Am I being bold enough? How do I know I’m not being cowardice, or afraid of man?”. Those are common questions when we’re talking about evangelism and outreach. They’re questions that will even come up when we consider our responsibility to one another. Sometimes it’s easier to “let love cover a multitude of sins” than it is to bring up that hard conversation when it’s time. Bringing up the two realities of sin and Jesus can be really hard in certain circumstances. 


Steven, in our passage, was not afraid to cut to the chase when the time was right. He spoke the truth boldly when it was time, and I think there’s a fair amount for us to learn from him in this story. 


In many ways, we might be able to identify with Stephen—in many ways, he was quite ordinary. Remember from last week that Stephen wasn’t commissioned to this task of evangelism, or preaching boldly. We saw last week, in the first six verses of this chapter, that he was actually commissioned to the work of a deacon. That was his calling, a ministry of service to poor and disadvantaged rather than preaching and confronting sinners in their unbelief with the gospel. He’s supposed to be “serving tables” (verse 2)—these are the tables where the money and food and clothing were distributed in the early church, so that everyone was cared for. If he went out and began to focus all his efforts on preaching the gospel like the apostles, he would be neglecting his calling to serve tables (and therefore disobedient). However, God saw it fit to make a deacon the first martyr who was martyred for preaching the gospel. How did that happen, and why? 


The Occasion, Accusation, and Exoneration of the First Martyr

This morning, I want to first consider that question—how did this whole thing get stirred up in the first place, and why? You might say, what was the occasion for this martyrdom? Then, we’ll consider the Jews’ accusations against Stephen, and his response to the accusations. Last, after Stephen provides his defense (or you could say, his sermon), there’s the exoneration. It’s a beautiful sight, this martyrdom is. At no point does this passage lead us to consider the miseries of his death. As Stephen sees Jesus as he’s dying, we see more of an exoneration than a martyrdom. So again—


1. The occasion 

2. The accusations

3. The exoneration


The Occasion of Stephen's Martyrdom

When you really put your mind to it, there’s quite a few things that went into the occasion of this martyrdom. This whole things develops progressively—and, let me point out a number observations that led to this occasion. 


Stephen’s Signs and Miracles

First, we learn that Stephen attracted this Jewish opposition when he started performing signs and miracles. For reasons we aren’t told, verse 8 tells us that God gave Stephen the ability to do “great wonders and signs among the people”. It’s really something to think about—we don’t know exactly why Stephen was given these miraculous abilities, or when. For all we know, Stephen could have accidently healed someone one day when he was serving at the distribution tables. Remember—he was commissioned to serve and help the poor and disadvantaged in the church. I imagine the signs and wonders he was performing involved healing the folks whom he was serving in his role as a deacon. Wouldn’t that be nice deacon to have around? He wasn’t just helping the poor and disadvantaged, he was healing them. That was the first stepping-stone toward his martyrdom, as the signs and wonders done through him would have caught the attention of the Jews.


The Collaboration of the Synagogues

So, the next piece going into this occasion involved a collaboration of synagogues and Jews from all over Rome. That’s verse 9—read that with me again (and, when I read this, notice how they approach Stephen. Do they come out with arms swinging, ready to kill the someone?).Verse 9—


Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.


All these people and groups, together, coming together against a single man. It all started with a discussion—a dispute, or a debate. The occasion for the first martyr started out with a dispute. “Stephen” against what appears to be several people from various synagogues. This was a joint collaboration, it appears. So, Stephen was put into a position where he had to defend his faith against a number of aggravated, zealous Jews from all over Jerusalem and Rome. 


It’s a hard spot to be in. It reminds me of the way the Jews plotted against Jesus—trying to catch him in tricky debates and questions. Like Jesus, it seems that the nations were taking counsel together and plotting against Stephen to destroy him. That’s going into this occasion.


Stephen: A Man Full of Blessing

There’s another piece that leads into this occasion of Stephen’s martyrdom. In our passage, we’re reminded that Stephen was filled with a unique portion of Jesus’s wisdom and power. At the very least, he was an extremely godly and gracious man—at most, he had received incredible blessings from God. When we first meet him in verse 5, he is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. That’s before he was appointed as a deacon; before he began doing wonders and signs. Wouldn’t it be an honor if someone described you that way? “Full of faith and of the Holy Spirit”. Then in verse 8, we also learn that he was “full of grace and of power”. 


We get the impression that Stephen was just filled to the brim with these awesome blessing from God. We really should remember that they are from God. Faith, the Spirit, grace, power—these are blessings that we pray for! When you want more faith and grace—isn’t our first impulse to pray? It’d be crazy to look inside yourself. When I look inside Peder Kling I see doubt, weakness, and falsehood rather than faith, power, and grace. God blessed Stephen with these qualities, I think, for this occasion—and, these qualities are available to all of us in Christ Jesus. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” He died to make you rich with peace, grace, his spirit, power over sin and temptation, and boldness when you need it. Ask him for it as you commit yourself to reading his word, and fellowshipping with his saints.


Now, what happens when God gives an unusual portion of those blessings to a believer? Verse 10 says that as these Jews were disputing Stephen, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Impenetrable wisdom, folks. This was wisdom from God. You almost get the picture that these Jews were arguing with the risen Jesus himself, here, as they were speaking with this most blessed man Stephen. 


Do you remember what Jesus said about this? He said to his disciples in Luke 21:15, concerning the time of his departure—“Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Again, the blessings and wisdom come from Jesus. He’ll give it when you need it, as you ask for it.


So, more pieces going into the occasion of Stephen’s martyrdom. Stephen was blessed with an unusual portion of grace, power, faith, the Spirit, and wisdom which the Jews couldn’t overcome. It drove them nuts.


A Point of Application: How to be Ready to Defend our Faith

Let me take a quick point of application, here. I said earlier that in many respects, Stephen might appear much more like us than the apostle Paul or Peter. Stephen was called to a ministry of service, not apostolic preaching. As far as we know from what Acts says of Stephen, his only calling to preach boldly was the general calling upon every Christian to be ready to defend our faith.


I am reminded of that famous passage in First Peter. This is a verse that I think scares a lot of Christians, but I don’t think it needs to. Turn to First Peter with me, so you can see this yourselves. First Peter 3:13–17: 


Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.  Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy… 


Here’s the passage we often get afraid about—


...always being prepared to make a defense [apologia, apologetic] to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…. 


Peter is saying that every one of you should be ready to make a defense for your faith to anyone who asks for it. That brings this Stephen passage close to home, doesn’t it? Stephen was ready. How can we be ready? Many of us might say— “How can I have confidence and wisdom—words to say—in those moments, like what Stephen had?” Or we might just say very plainly—“Nope, not happening. I’m bad at speaking, I’m not a bookworm, I can’t argue—not doing it. I avoid those conversations at all costs.”. How can we be prepared for this, brothers and sisters?


I want you to think about the way this verse in 1 Peter 3 is worded. This verse isn’t requiring a philosophical or heavy theological argument in the defense of Christianity. The academic study of defending the faith in Christian circles, I think, has debilitated many Christians from speaking of their faith in public. “I’m not qualified to defend my faith”, many might say. “That’s up to the smart people in the church”. 


But this verse is easy, ladies and gentlemen. It’s asking you to provide a defense, or explanation, to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. That’s what Peter is saying! Think of the scenario Peter is painting for us, here—perhaps as it might be applicable to us, today.


You’re at work, and you do something stupid that might cost you your job. You have to come clean to your boss—or, you could lie and find a way to cover it up. You’re a Christian, you’re seeking to honor God and fear God rather than man, so you tell your boss the truth. You’re boss looks at you, and says, “Why are you being honest about this? You know this could cost you your job?” Peter says—provide a reason for your hope.


You get saved, and you stop hanging out with your old drinking buddies. They say, “why won’t you come back and hang out, what happened to you?”. Peter says, provide a reason for your hope. 


Or, you clearly come across as a “Christian family”, and people think you’re a little bit weird because of some choices you make. They ask “why do you live like that? I can respect it, but why?” Peter says, provide a reason for your hope.


What is the reason for your hope? It’s very easy, in three simple words—“Jesus is alive.”. That’s it! You say, “He’s alive, he’s reigning, offering forgiveness of sins, he’s poured his spirit out upon me and completely changed me. He’s awakened me to his glory and peace and joy, and it’s a joy to serve him rather than myself or anyone else in this world. He’s alive, and he’s given me eternal life. If I lose my job over this silly mistake, I can rest easy tonight because I know I served my Lord faithfully, and he’ll take care of me.” In a word, that’s what the apostles were doing in their ministry to the Jews. You killed him, but God raised him up. Repent and believe.


Now, we’ve considered much of the occasion for Stephen’s martyrdom. (1) it was occasioned by Stephen’s miracles, which then caught Jewish people’s attention. (2) It was occasioned by those Jewish people taking counsel together against Stephen, and then (3) it was occasioned by Jesus’s rich blessings upon Stephen, which allowed him to speak boldly with wisdom that the Jews couldn’t penetrate. 


The rest of the pieces to this martyrdom involve the Jewish people’s reaction to Stephen when they couldn’t resist Stephen’s wisdom. In verses 11 through 15, we see an all-too-familiar story of false witnesses being set up against Stephen, just as they did for Jesus. The parallels to Jesus’s unfair trial are quite striking, here. False witnesses were instigated, crowds were stirred up, a council was convened, and false charges were brought against Stephen. 


The Accusation, and Stephen’s Defense

So, that occasion leads us to the accusations. There were two particular accusations against Stephen, and we see them in verses 13 and 14—


... and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law... 


So, those are the accusations—(1) speaking against the holy place (the temple), and (2) speaking against the law. Then, the witness’s testimony—


...for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.”


Are those false accusations? It’s actually possible Stephen said something like this—Jesus did promise the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., and Jesus did challenge the Mosaic customs pertaining to the law in Israel. These are certainly things Stephen could have debated in his discussion with the Jews, but the passage says these were false witnesses and accusations. What’s going on, here? I think the point, here, is that they were false in the sense that they were not valid accusations to be brought to court in the first place. If police officer cites me with a court appearance because I lawfully drove a car in the state of New York, we might consider his citation to be a false accusation. I did drive lawfully, but he falsely accused me of wrongdoing. My job, then, would be to prove myself innocent.


That’s Stephen’s sermon—he is responding to these two accusations. But, I love how he does it. John Stott says it well when he says—


Stephen’s speech was not so much a self-defence as a testimony to Christ. His main theme was positive, that Jesus the Messiah had come to replace the temple and fulfil the law, which both bore witness to him. As Calvin put it, ‘No harm can be done to the temple and the law, when Christ is openly established as the end and truth of both.


That’s Stephen’s defense—he preaches the gospel by doubling down on Christ fulfilling the law and the temple. 


Now, how many of you have read this sermon and though, “It seems more like a retelling of Israel’s story than a sermon, or a defense. How is this compelling to Stephen’s case?”


Think about the way he tells the story of Israel. He gives us four stages in Israel’s history. First, Abraham and the patriarchs. Second, Joseph and the Egyptian exile. Third, Moses and the Exodus into the wilderness. Fourth, David and Solomon. What do all four of these episodes have in common? 


A lot, I’m sure. But for Stephen’s purposes—God’s presence is not confined to a temple in all four of these episodes. God goes with Abraham, as he leads Abraham on his pilgrimage. God was with Joseph and the Israelites in Egypt, as he multiplied them greatly and remembered them after 400 years. God was with Moses, appearing to him in a bush at Midian, and guiding all of Israel to Mount Sinai. Then, even at the time of David, we are reminded that God’s presence cannot be contained in a temple. David wishes to build a temple, and God says “leave it to your son, Solomon.” Solomon builds the temple, and what does he say when he dedicates it to God? “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) If you look at verses 44–48 of Stephen’s sermon, you see that this is exactly the conclusion he makes. The story of Israel proves that the temple is not something to put your pride in. God’s presence cannot be contained or manipulated. 


Brothers and sisters, this only highlights the real beauty of Jesus’s blessings. The temple was sacred because it was the place of God’s ceremonial presence. Go to the temple, sacrifice animals for atonement of your sins, get ceremonially clean, and experience ceremonial blessing from God. Jesus does away with that. “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). Period. He’s brought us to God, in fellowship with him. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?”, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19. That’s a promise of infinite consequences and blessings, right there. Through Christ, God is always with you. Stephen wanted the Jews to know it’s foolish and altogether unhelpful to focus on God’s presence and blessings at the temple, especially after Jesus did away with it. 


But, more than this, he wanted to address their second accusation—that he was tampering with the law and customs of Moses. When Stephen gets to the time of Moses in his story, he begins to repeat an ugly detail in Israel’s history. Israel has always rejected Moses, and his instructions. In verses 25 and 27, we are reminded that Israel disdained Moses from the very beginning. That’s why Moses left for Midian—Stephen calls him an “exile” out of Egypt. Then verse 35—“this Moses, whom they rejected”. Verse 39, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they returned to Egypt.” And verse 42, “But God turned away and gave them over to worship the host of heaven”, just as the prophet said.  The point is—Israel has disregarded Moses from the beginning. And to be sure—Stephen closes his sermon with a direct address to his accusers—


You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”


That’s bold, isn’t it? This is an indictment—it’s not a call to repentance. He doesn’t go on to defend that Jesus fulfilled the law, and there’s forgiveness. Here, he just speaks judgment on Israel. In fact, after Stephen is stoned, we’ll see next week that the church picks up and leaves Jerusalem, and begins to spread the gospel elsewhere. The Jews rejected their Messiah for their precious temple, and their precious customs of Moses. This was a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit”, “full of grace and power”—with a radiant face. These weren’t empty words. I have no doubt Jesus was speaking through him in this moment.


Why it Matters: “God is with me, God is for me”

Now, why does this matter? What’s the encouragement, in all this? As I was thinking about this over the week, it really dawned on me that the two accusations brought against Stephen pertained to what might be the two most empowering and encouraging blessings from Christ in any given situation. First, the matter of God's presence—he is with us not just at the Temple, but always through the Spirit. Then second, the matter of the law—knowing we are redeemed from the law in Christ, and in good fellowship with God. When Steven was being stoned after giving that sermon, I wonder if he was thinking of these two wonderful and empowering thoughts which he just preached about. “God is with me, and God is for me”.  God is with me because his Spirit has been poured upon me, and God is for me because his blood has been shed for me to cleans me from the guilt of the law. So go, die in the name of Jesus. Have a difficult or awkward conversation with your neighbor about Jesus. It’s going to be ok—God is with you, and he’s for you. Rest easy at night, and rejoice.


So, we’ve considered the occasion for Stephen’s martyrdom, and then the accusations. Let’s now consider a brief word about his exoneration.


The Exoneration

His martyrdom was his exoneration. As his accusers grabbed him, ground their teeth at him, and dragged him “outside of the city” to die a criminal’s death like his Lord, we read something awesome in verse 55. 


But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and 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 at the right hand of God.”


R. C. Sproul made a big deal out of this, and a number of others have as well. Jesus is standing at his Father’s right hand. That’s an unusual description of Jesus in our Bibles. Usually, he’s sitting at his father’s right hand, conveying that he’s the king sitting on the throne, and his work of conquering a kingdom is complete. Yet here, Jesus is standing. In modern courts, and it might even appear to be the case in God’s heavenly courtroom as well, it is the sole privilege of the defense attorney and the prosecuting attorney to stand during a trial. Zechariah 3 gives an example of a court hearing in God’s heavenly courtroom, where the devil—the great accuser—is “standing by to accuse” Joshua the high priest. So, God cleanses Joshua through various means, and then we get a picture of “the angel of the Lord standing by”—namely, to defend Joshua’s purity in the Lord’s presence.


When Stephen is about to be the first Christian martyr killed through an unlawful trial and an unjust sentence, Jesus is pictured standing in God’s throne room. What do you think he’s doing? He’s the supreme judge, folks—he’s the judge, as well as the prosecutor of his enemies, and the defense for his people. Here, he’s standing in eyeshot of Stephen with an eagerness to receive Stephen as righteous. The same holds true for all of us who have received Jesus, by faith, as we are covered by his blood and clothed in his righteousness.



So, we’ve seen the occasion for the trial, the accusations, and the exoneration. Let all of this encourage you to speak of Jesus’s salvation boldly and winsomely when the time is right, and let it encourage you that nothing—not even a false accusation, or unjustly being put to death—can separate you from the love of Christ.

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