The First Martyr

Posted by on 11/06/2017 in:

Jesus tells us that we will be hated as he was hated—but not all of us will actually experience severe persecution. Instead, many of us are blessed to worship God where, when, and how we want. The first Christians did not have this luxury, and they clung to Jesus’ promises as they stood up for the Gospel. In extreme moments, Christians even gave up their lives to promote the Gospel.

You’ve probably heard about martyrs before, but let’s make sure we don’t become desensitized to these acts of self-sacrifice. Instead, let’s take some time to reflect on one of the first Christian martyrs recorded, Stephen from Acts 7.

Below is an excerpt from Barnes’ New Testament Notes:

WHY WAS STEPHEN BEING TRIED?

This chapter contains the defense of Stephen before the sanhedrim, or great council of the Jews. There has been great diversity of opinion about the object which Stephen had in view in this defense, and about the reason why he introduced at such length the history of the Jewish people. But a few remarks may perhaps show his design, He was accused of blasphemy in speaking against the institutions of Moses and the temple, that is, against everything held sacred among the Jews.

HIS DEFENSE

To meet this charge, he gives a statement, at length, of his belief in the Mosaic religion, in the great points of their history, and in the fact that God had interposed in a remarkable manner in defending them from dangers. By this historical statement he avows his full belief in the Divine origin of the Jewish religion, and thus indirectly repels the charge of blasphemy.

It is further to be remembered, that this was the best way of securing the attention of the council. Had he entered on an abstract defense, he might expect to be stopped by their cavils or their clamor. But the history of their own nation was a favorite topic among the Jews. They were always ready to listen to an account of their ancestors; and to secure their attention, nothing more was necessary than to refer to their illustrious lives and deeds.

THE GOAL OF HIS DEFENSE

In this way Stephen secured their attention, and practically repelled the charge of speaking reproachfully of Moses and the temple. He showed them that he had as firm a belief as they in the great historical facts of their nation. It is to be remembered, also, that this speech was broken off in the midst, (Ac 7:53,54) and it is therefore difficult to tell what the design of Stephen was.

It seems clear, however, that he intended to convict them of guilt, by showing that they sustained the same character as their fathers had manifested, (Ac 7:51,52) and there is some probability that he intended to show that the acceptable worship of God was not to be confined to any place particularly, from the fact that the worship of Abraham, and the patriarchs, and Moses, was acceptable before the temple was reared, (Ac 7:2, etc.,) and from the declaration in Ac 7:48, that God dwells not in temples made with hands.

STEPHEN’S TWO MAIN POINTS

All that can be said here is, that Stephen

1. Showed his full belief in the Divine appointment of Moses, and the historical facts of their religion.

2. That he laid the foundation of an argument to show that those things were not perpetually binding, and that acceptable worship might be offered in other places and in another manner than at the temple.

HOW WAS HIS DEFENSE RECORDED?

It has been asked in what way Luke became acquainted with this speech so as to repeat it. The Scripture has not informed us. But we may remark:

1. That Stephen was the first martyr. His death, and the incidents connected with it, could not but be a matter of interest to the first Christians; and the substance of his defense, at least, would be familiar to them. There is no improbability in supposing that imperfect copies might be preserved by writing, and circulated among them.

2. Luke was the companion of Paul. Paul was present when this defense was delivered, and was a man who would be likely to remember what was said on such an occasion. From him Luke might have derived the account of this defense. In regard to this discourse, it may be further remarked, that it is not necessary to suppose that Stephen was inspired. Even if there should be found inaccuracies, as some critics have pretended, in the address, it would not militate against its genuineness.

It is the defense of a man on trial under a serious charge; not a man of whom there is evidence that he was inspired, but a pious, devoted, heavenly-minded man. All that the sacred narrative is responsible for is the correctness of the report. Luke alleges only that such a speech was in fact delivered, without affirming that every particular in it is correct.

TAKEAWAYS

Here are a few ideas of how you can apply what you’ve learned:

  • Pray and thank God for martyrs, the strength He gave them in times of trouble, and for the way He also gives you strength to stand up for what is right
  • Learn more about other martyrs, continuing to reflect on the importance of the Gospel
  • Pray for missionaries that are currently serving in dangerous countries

LEARN MORE

The content of this blog was taken from Barnes’ New Testament Notes (11 Vols.), a verse-by-verse commentary set composed by American theologian, Albert Barnes.

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