Today we read about the death of Stephen who is the first martyr of Christianity. The story is fairly self-explanatory but there are some interesting details to take note of.
First, Stephen was a deacon. We saw this when we read Acts chapter 6:
Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose STEPHEN, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
Notice that Stephen is named and called “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. He is listed first as a mark of honor. Philip is listed second, we will begin to see his works in the next few chapters. Remember that, like Judas, Nicolaus is listed last because he will go onto betray the Church.
The trial of Stephen before the Sanhedrin is a repeat of the trial of Jesus. In Acts 6 we see that like Jesus the charge against Stephen is that he spoke of the destruction of the Temple:
…and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 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.
Stephen’s response is lengthy and detailed and a fulfillment of Jesus promise:
When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
This is why when listed as a deacon if can be truly and completely said of Stephen, that he is “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”.
Stephen’s defense concludes with an affirmation that the Temple is meaningless.
Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,
Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?
Stephen points out that a mere building cannot contain God and that in fact all of creation is the temple of God. The speech almost certainly seals Stephen’s fate. He points out that every major prophet of Israel has been rejected and betrayed, a idea that would likely have been well known to the Jewish people. He then points out that they have fell into the same pattern, this time betraying the chosen messiah. Stephen is stoned and it is at this time we are introduced to Saul.
Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
(Chapter 8:1) And Saul approved of his execution.
The introduction of Saul at this point is important. We know that the book of Acts was written by Luke, who was Paul’s friend and traveling companion. By introducing Saul (who will go on to be renamed Paul) at the point where he is overseeing the execution of the first martyr Luke is establishing his credibility as a writer. He’s not hiding uncomfortable facts.