December 26 – Stephen, martyr
These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.
Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.
Stephen is regarded as the first Christian martyr. His story is to be found in Acts chapters six and seven. We first come across him when there is a dispute among the disciples between the Hellenist or Greek speaking disciples and the Palestinian or Hebrew speaking disciples. The Hellenists complain that the Hellenist widows are not being looked after. The twelve apostles call a meeting and seven believers, who are men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and who all appear to be Hellenistic believers, are set apart to care for these widows. Stephen is the first named of these men. We are told that he was someone who was filled with grace and power, who did great wonders and signs among the people.
It would appear that Stephen was also an evangelist, one who spoke with others about who Jesus was and how he had fulfilled the prophecies in the Scriptures. Stephen and Philip, who is also an evangelist, are able to talk to the Hellenistic Jews in a way the Palestinian believers are not able to, because they share the same background.
Some men from the Synagogue of the Freed Slaves, who were also Hellenistic Jews like Stephen, began to question him. They were unable to defeat his arguments, so they arranged for some men to say that they had heard him blaspheme against Moses and God. They then stirred up the people and the religious leaders who brought him before the High Council. It is not clear if all of the council were present or only some.
The accusations were that he spoke against the Temple and the Law. Stephen was accused of saying that Jesus had claimed he would destroy the Temple and would throw out the Laws of Moses.
Stephen rather than giving a defence against the charges gives a defence of Christianity by retelling the story of how the people came into the land God gave them and how they had turned away from God. Stephen starts with Abraham in Mesopotamia thereby impressing on them that God’s presence is not confined to the Temple or the land.
He tells them that they have killed the one God sent, the one who was to come. At this point they cannot hold themselves back and they rush him, take him from the city and stone him to death. As this is happening Stephen tells them that he sees Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God. In this he is claiming Jesus, who they had tried and had put to death, had been the Messiah. Stephen dies asking God to forgive them.
Saul (Paul) was there and held the coats. Paul and others then start to persecute the believers who are scattered. Jesus words before he ascended that they were to take the Good News to the ends of the earth, is now to be fulfilled. If there hadn’t been a Stephen, the Gospel might have been lost or have stayed as a Jewish sect. Through Stephan’s martyrdom the whole world came to hear of the Messiah.