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The Spreading Flame - Series 2: Episode 2

Stephen – the first martyr

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 7:1-8:1

Stephen answered the charges against him by reminding the Sanhedrin of their history and that at every point the Jews had resisted God - just as they had done, when they rejected him. In an emotional response, Stephen was stoned to death becoming the first Christian martyr.

Stephen answered the charges against him by reminding the Sanhedrin of their history and that at every point the Jews had resisted God - just as they had done, when they rejected him. In an emotional response, Stephen was stoned to death becoming the first Christian martyr.


Welcome back to this second episode in Series 2. It’s part two of a story about an individual person of great significance in the book of Acts. His name is Stephen. If you’ve read the title of this episode, you’ll be aware that he dies in this episode, as a result of being martyred or killed for his faith. So, it’s a very dramatic episode that we’re going to discuss in today’s session.

Introduction and Background

In Series 2, we are reaching a turning point in the story. Up to this point, the Church has been in one area, Jerusalem. It has managed to resist the pressure put on it by the religious authorities and has kept growing and steadily moving forward. This is now going to change very dramatically as a result of what happens right now in this episode.

If you followed the last episode, you’ll remember the story of Stephen, who started out in his work for the church, as recorded at the beginning of Acts 6, as one of seven men whose responsibility was to care for the widows and to oversee the daily distribution of food. In the last episode, at the beginning of Series 2, we noticed that Stephen had moved; he was doing something different. He had felt called, and decided that this calling was to actually preach about Jesus publicly and to share the ministry of the Apostles. He is the first person named to be a preacher, other than the Apostles, the first of many. We saw in the last episode how he went into a particular synagogue, the Synagogue of the Freedmen, which had an ethnic group of Jews whose connections were outside Israel, of which he was a part. He started speaking there and it caused a tremendous controversy. They tried to discredit him with false rumours and fake news about what he was claiming. They literally dragged him back to the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. We’ve heard about the Sanhedrin in Series 1. They ruled over the religious life of the nation of Israel, based in the Temple, controlled by the priests, and that the board was chaired by the High Priest himself.

We left Stephen in this intriguing position in the last episode. He’s come before the Sanhedrin, and false accusers have already been lined up and have said all sorts of untrue things about Stephen to the Sanhedrin. He hasn’t yet spoken. At the end of the last episode, we saw this very strange statement that, in verse 15,

‘they saw that his face was like that of an angel’,

like a sense of God being with him in a remarkable way, even before he’d spoken.

Stephen’s Answer to the Charges

In Acts 7: 1 it says,

‘Then the High Priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”’

Charges, for example, of intending to bring about the destruction of the Temple, disregarding the Law of Moses, not caring about the traditions of Israel. “Are these charges true?” The interrogation begins. At this point, Luke records in detail what Stephen says to the Sanhedrin on this occasion. It is the longest recorded speech, or message, in the book of Acts. It is recorded in great detail. I’m going to read the whole speech in one go, to give you a feel of what Stephen says.

His goal was to talk about some of the key events in the history of Israel and to point out that, in the past, the leaders and the people of the nation have had a tendency to resist God’s plan for them. Then we’ll see the outcome of that way of thinking at the end of the speech. He’s going to talk about their history. He’s going to talk about things that they know very well because the Jews had a tremendously close association with their history. They were proud of their ethnic origins. They were proud of the key stories of the Old Testament. They were proud of Abraham, the father of their nation, who was called by God, with his wife Sarah, to literally found the nation. They were proud of Moses, who took the Jews from a period of captivity in Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the desert of Sinai. Then later on they were proud of Joshua, who brought the Jews into the promised land. They were proud of King David who established the Jewish monarchy. They were proud of their Temple right there before them and before that, there was a moving tent structure, which had a similar framework to the Temple, that moved around to different places, until God said it should be replaced by the Temple in the time of David’s son, Solomon. They were proud of all these events. This was their history. This was their heritage. God was their God. God was the God of Jews, not of the Gentile nations, in their mind. The Gentiles could join their faith; they could come across and become like Jews, yes, but they had to become like them, because they were literally the chosen people. That’s their mindset. So, Stephen is speaking into this way of thinking, retelling the story, but bringing into the story the negative aspect, which is that the people didn’t always want to do what God wanted them to do. They didn’t always want to obey. He makes the point very powerfully at the end, that the same thing is happening at that very moment in the history of Israel.

Stephen’s Speech

Chapter 7: 2 - 53,

2 ‘To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. 3 ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ 4 So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. 5 He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. 6 God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. 7 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ 8 Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. 9 Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace. 11 Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. 12 When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. 13 On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. 14 After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. 15 Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. 16 Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money. 17 As the time drew near for God to fulfil his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. 18 Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ 19 He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die. 20 At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. 21 When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. 22 Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. 23 When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. 24 He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defence and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. 26 The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’ 27 But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? 28 Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons. 30 After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. 31 When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: 32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look. 33 Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. 34 I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’ 35 This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness. 37 This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ 38 He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us. 39 But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ 41 That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and revelled in what their own hands had made. 42 But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets: Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? 43 You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship. Therefore, I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon. 44 Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. 45 After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, 46 who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: 49 ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? 50 Has not my hand made all these things?’ 51 You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — 53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”’

Acts 7:2-53, NIV

Never had the Sanhedrin heard a speech like that in all the years of their existence. No one had confronted them in such a challenging way. Stephen traced the history of the key events of the nation, and he pointed out that, although God was with them, there were continual moments of resistance from the people and key leaders, all the way along, at every stage of the development of the nation, which had meant the nation had been less fruitful and effective than it was intended to be, by God’s grace. He pointed out how, in the time of Moses, the people were hostile to Moses, unbelieving of the things that he said God had promised to do for them and through them. He pointed out that the Old Testament prophets were continually showing the people of Israel that they were not fully obeying what God had called them to do.

This speech builds up to a tremendous climax. I don’t think the people knew quite what was happening as Stephen was speaking because, as he was telling the story of Israel, everything he said was very accurate. They would say, “Yes, that’s true, God called Abraham. Yes, Moses did this. Yes, Joseph was key at that particular time. Yes, David was a vital king. Yes, Solomon built the Temple.” Lots of things that he said were very positive for them, and were true and accurate reflections of their history. But he pointed out the negative side of the story. So, the culmination, the climax, the confrontation, comes in verse 51, where Stephen says that the religious leaders, sitting in front of him, had made the same mistake as their ancestors by missing out on God’s moments of intervention and refusing to believe when God was doing a new thing. That’s exactly what they had done with Jesus. We have to remember that these seventy men, sitting here, were the same seventy men who, some time before, in an emergency late night sitting, had had Jesus Christ brought before them. This same High Priest had interrogated Jesus, who was now interrogating Stephen. This same High Priest had interrogated Peter and John, had interrogated the twelve Apostles. They all knew the decision they had made to condemn Jesus as a false messiah; he wasn’t the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophets of the deliverer of Israel. That was their judgement. Ever since they made that judgement, for the weeks and the months that had passed - we don’t exactly know how long had passed now, quite a period of time into years, since that point - they have seen, in their city, that the Jesus movement, the discipleship movement, the Early Church, flourishing and people joining the movement that they had condemned, following the leader they had handed over to be killed, who the people claimed had risen from the dead; following the Apostles, who performed miracles that they could not refuse or deny because they were happening in the Temple compound, and in the city,

Tension Rises and Spills Over

The tension of this moment is enormous. Stephen is putting pressure on them. We remember from earlier episodes, that twice the Sanhedrin had tried to say to the Apostles, “You need to be quiet, stop preaching” and it had totally failed. What were they going to do at this point, as Stephen confronts them directly? What happens in the next few verses? The next dramatic event wasn’t planned. This was a spontaneous response from those listening to an unexpectedly powerful and confrontational speech. We read the final part of our passage, Acts 7: 54 - Acts 8: 1,

54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. 8 1 And Saul approved of their killing him.’

Acts 7:54 - Acts 8:1, NIV

So it is that Stephen became the first martyr of the Christian Church on that day. It’s amazing - the poise and the character of Stephen? Even as this hostility is being vented upon him and he’s being dragged out and threatened with death, he has a vision of heaven, and the glory of God. He sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That means Jesus is in a position of authority. Jesus had said to this High Priest in his own trial that the day would come when he would be standing at the right hand of God. In other words, God, his Father would raise him up to the highest place of authority in the universe. Stephen saw that in fact, Jesus is ruling over all these events. Whatever tragedy may be about to happen to him, the rule of Christ is unchanging and eternal. He can commit his life into Jesus’ hands. He can take the risk of what he’s done. Amazing to think of how Stephen responded.

The Sanhedrin was allowed to punish other Jews who committed religious sins, by the thirty-nine lashes, by flogging. This is what they’d done to the Apostles in an earlier episode. They had, within their rule book, that certain people who committed serious religious sins should be killed by stoning to death. That was the method of death that they approved. But the Romans, who ruled, did not permit them to carry out the death sentence. This is the reason why they handed Jesus over to the Romans, who then, of course, used their own method of execution which is crucifixion. On this occasion, the Sanhedrin carried out an illegal act according to Roman law and the reason they did it was because of the emotional intensity of the event. This was not a planned punishment; this was a spontaneous response of a very angry ruling council. Do you get the feel of that as you read the text? They suddenly found that their feelings got the better of them and they carried out a stoning. It was traditional for Jews to take off their coats and place them on the floor as it were, as they became those who threw the stones. That’s what the reference to that event is, at the end of this passage. This was actually an illegal action. We don’t know whether the Romans ever punished the Sanhedrin for this because Luke isn’t interested in that detail. It’s a spontaneous action that they had not planned but such was their anger, such was their sense of hatred of what was being said by Stephen, that they literally stoned him to death outside the city. This would have been a very public event. We see that it had immediate implications for the whole Church. Things began to change immediately after this event. The whole atmosphere in Jerusalem changed, from that moment because the Sanhedrin had finally taken decisive actions against a key leader.

Stephen’s Reaction

But notice Stephen, how he faces death. This is another indication of his incredible character. He was ready to die. He knew the risk he was taking with this speech. His faith was absolutely clear; he had no doubt that he was heading into the eternal world, into heaven, into glory, immediately. He showed that incredible characteristic of many mature Christians, which is the ability to forgive those who had done such terrible evil to them. This is a very important, difficult, profound and sensitive issue that is very clear in this text. We immediately think of Jesus on the cross,

“Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Stephen echoes this sentiment, in verse 60,

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.

He didn’t want these religious leaders ultimately to pay the penalty of God’s judgement for their action. He wanted them to find salvation. Such was the character of Stephen. There appears in this story, Saul, whose other name is Paul, who becomes a major character in the rest of the book of Acts.


As we reflect on this incredible story, what can we learn? It’s a shocking story. Something suddenly happens. This is about martyrdom. The principal thing that we need to talk about in this passage, is about those who die for their faith. Throughout Christian history, people have paid the ultimate price for their faith. Many people who are threatened with this, look back with inspiration to this particular story because it gives us courage and boldness. In many nations, represented by the viewers of this video, you will have your martyrs in your minds. People will have died for their faith in your nation, perhaps in the recent past. We now, in the 21st century, live in a time where more people are dying for their Christian faith than at any time in history. This is a result of multiple different things that are happening in the world, and also, it’s a result of the size of the Church and the number of believers. We see real threats to the Church from strong opposition in many different parts of the world. But martyrdom is not something that God will protect the Church from. Jesus himself, warned us and encouraged us, that to be a disciple is to be willing to take up your cross, which could on occasion, mean the loss of your life, or the loss of your freedom, or economic loss, or the loss of reputation. We need to take courage, even with this difficult story, and know that Stephen’s eternal destiny was never in question. He went from a difficult experience in this life to a magnificent eternity, to the approval of Jesus Christ and to the blessing of God as he entered into eternity - because he was faithful. That’s something we need to hold on to when we think of martyrdom in this world today. There are many countries I’m connected with, and am praying for, where there are martyrs. There are people I’ve known personally, who have died for their faith in different contexts. This will be the experience of many of you. I want this passage to be an encouragement to you. Although it was a tragedy in the short term, what we will see transpiring and coming about as a result of this event, will be the spreading of the Word. We know that ultimately God often uses the premature death of believers because of their faith, as a means of bringing about the spreading of his Word. That’s going on around the nations today in our challenging 21st-century.

This passage is really important for us. It’s also very important in understanding the book of Acts. I’m really looking forward to the next episode, where we see what God does when the Church gets scattered as a result of this event. So, I hope you’ll join us for the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Why are people prepared to die for their faith?
  • Discipleship
    1. How did Stephen approach his death? How was he able to do this?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Look up the history of the Jews as found in the Old Testament that Stephen speaks about.
    2. Why was Stephen killed?
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