Stephen: The First Martyr

stephen

Around the world, the gospel has most often taken root in places prepared by the blood of martyrs. Before people can give their lives for the gospel, however, they must first live their lives for the gospel. One way God trains his servants is to place them in insignificant positions. Their desire to serve Christ is translated into the reality of serving others. Stephen was an effective administrator and messenger before becoming a martyr.

Stephen was named among the managers of food distribution in the early church. Long before violent persecution broke out against Christians, there was already social ostracism. Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah were usually cut off from their families. As a result, the believers depended on each other for support. The sharing of homes, food, and resources was both a practical and necessary mark of the early church. Eventually, the number of believers made it necessary to organize the sharing. People were being overlooked. There were complaints. Those chosen to help manage were chosen for their integrity, wisdom, and sensitivity to God.

Stephen, besides being a good administrator, was also a powerful speaker. When confronted in the temple by various antagonistic groups, Stephen’s logic in responding was convincing. This is clear from the defense he made before the council. He presented a summary of the Jew’s own history and made powerful applications that stung his listeners. During his defense, Stephen must have known he was speaking his own death sentence. Members of the council could not stand to have their evil motives exposed. They stoned him to death while he prayed for their forgiveness. His final words show how much like Jesus he had become in a short time. His death had a lasting impact on young Saul (Paul) of Tarsus who would move from being a violent persecutor of Christians to being one of the greatest champions of the gospel the church has known.

Stephen’s life is a continual challenge to all Christians. Because he was the first to die for the faith, his sacrifice raises questions: How many risks do we take in being Jesus’ followers? Would we be willing to die for him? Are we really willing to live for him?


The ESV Study Bible, Large Print edition features the content of the award-winning ESV Study Bible with a highly readable, large-print type. Extensive study notes, charts, maps, and articles make this study Bible a valuable resource for serious readers, students, and teachers of God’s Word.

Strengths and Weaknesses

  • One of seven leader’s chosen to supervise food distribution to the needy
  • Known for his spiritual qualities of faith, wisdom, grace, and power, and for the Spirit’s presence in his life
  • An outstanding leader, teacher, and debater
  • First to give his life for the gospel

Lessons From His Life

  • Striving for excellence in small assignments prepares one for greater responsibilities
  • Real understanding of God always leads to practical and compassionate actions toward people

Vital Statistics for Stephen

  • Church responsibilities: Deacon – distributing food to the needy
  • Contemporaries: Paul, Caiaphas, Gamaliel, the apostles

Key Verses for Stephen

“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ 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” (Acts 7:59, 60).

Stephen’s story is told in Acts 6:3 – 8:2. He is also mentioned in Acts 11:19; 22:20.

Further Reading for Stephen

Stephen the Martyr: A Historical and Critical Study by Roger Elwood. Offering a scholarly perspective, this book examines Stephen’s role in the early Christian community, his speech before martyrdom, and his significance in shaping Christian thought.

Stephen: A Soldier of the Cross by Florence Morse Kingsley This book provides a spiritual exploration of Stephen’s life, drawing lessons from his courage, faith, and unwavering commitment to Christ, inspiring readers to emulate his example.

The Acts of the Apostles (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) by David G. Peterson While not solely focused on Stephen, this commentary offers an in-depth analysis of the book of Acts, providing valuable context and insights into Stephen’s story within the broader narrative of early Christianity.

Each of these books approaches Stephen’s life and martyrdom from various angles—historical, theological, spiritual, and contextual—providing a deeper understanding of his significance in the New Testament and the early Christian community.


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