Ste’phen, the first Christian martyr, was the chief of the seven (commonly called Deacons) appointed to rectify the complaints in the early Church of Jerusalem, made by the Hellenistic against the Hebrew Christians. His Greek name indicates his own Hellenistic origin. His importance is stamped on the narrative by a reiteration of emphatic, almost superlative, phrases: “full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” Acts 6:5; “full of grace and power,” ibid. 8; irresistible “spirit and wisdom,” ibid. 10; “full of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 7:55. He shot far ahead of his six companions, and far above his particular office. First, he arrests attention by the “great wonders and miracles that he did.” Then begins a series of disputations with the Hellenistic Jews of north Africa, Alexandria, and Asia Minor, his companions in race and birthplace. The subject of these disputations is not expressly mentioned; but from what follows it is obvious that he struck into a new vein of teaching, which evidently caused his martyrdom. Down to this time the apostles and the early Christian community had clung in their worship, not merely to the holy land and the holy city, but to the holy place of the temple. This local worship, with the Jewish customs belonging to it, Stephen denounced. So we must infer from the accusations brought against him, confirmed as they are by the tenor of his defence. He was arrested at the instigation of the Hellenistic Jews, and brought before the Sanhedrin. His speech in his defence, and his execution by stoning outside the gates of Jerusalem, are related at length in Acts 7. The framework in which his defence is cast is a summary of the history of the Jewish Church. In the facts which he selects from his history he is guided by two principles. The first is the endeavor to prove that, even in the previous Jewish history, the presence and favor of God had not been confined to the holy land or the temple of Jerusalem. The second principle of selection is based on the attempt to show that there was a tendency from the earliest times toward the same ungrateful and narrow spirit that had appeared in this last stage of their political existence. It would seem that, just at the close of his argument, Stephen saw a change in the aspect of his judges, as if for the first time they had caught the drift of his meaning. He broke off from his calm address, and turned suddenly upon them in an impassioned attack, which shows that he saw what was in store for him. As he spoke they showed by their faces that their hearts “were being sawn asunder,” and they kept gnashing their set teeth against him; but still, though with difficulty, restraining themselves. He, in this last crisis of his fate, turned his face upward to the open sky, and as he gazed the vault of heaven seemed to him to part asunder; and the divine Glory appeared through the rending of the earthly veil—the divine Presence, seated on a throne, and on the right hand the human form of Jesus. Stephen spoke as if to himself, describing the glorious vision; and in so doing, alone of all the speakers and writers in the New Testament except only Christ himself, uses the expressive phrase “the Son of man.” As his judges heard the words, they would listen no longer. They broke into a loud yell; they clapped their hands to their ears; they flew as with one impulse upon him, and dragged him out of the city to the place of execution. Those who took the lead in the execution were the persons who had taken upon themselves the responsibility of denouncing him. Deut. 17:7; comp. John 8:7. In this instance they were the witnesses who had reported or misreported the words of Stephen. They, according to the custom, stripped themselves; and one of the prominent leaders in the transaction was deputed by custom to signify his assent to the act by taking the clothes into his custody and standing over them while the bloody work went on. The person who officiated on this occasion was a young man from Tarsus, the future apostle of the Gentiles. [Paul.] As the first volley of stones burst upon him, Stephen called upon the Master whose human form he had just seen in the heavens, and repeated almost the words with which he himself had given up his life on the cross, “O Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Another crash of stones brought him on his knees. One loud, piercing cry, answering to the shriek or yell with which his enemies had flown upon him, escaped his dying lips. Again clinging to the spirit of his Master’s words, he cried, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” and instantly sank upon the ground, and, in the touching language of the narrator, who then uses for the first time the words afterward applied to the departure of all Christians, but here the more remarkable from the bloody scenes in the midst of which death took place, fell asleep. His mangled body was buried by the class of Hellenists and proselytes to which he belonged. The importance of Stephen’s career may be briefly summed up under three heads:
1. He was the first great Christian ecclesiastic, “The Archdeacon,” as he is called in the eastern Church. 2. He is the first martyr—the protomartyr. To him the name “martyr” is first applied. Acts 22:20. 3. He is the forerunner of St. Paul. He was the anticipator, as, had he lived, he would have been the propagator, of the new phase of Christianity of which St. Paul became the main support.