Stephen:“Lay Not This Sin to Their Charge”

5 min

Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was a man of God who consistently and faithfully loved his neighbor. His name is of Greek origin and means “crowned one.” When Stephen first became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ is uncertain. He was probably a Hellenistic (Greek) Jew from Jerusalem who came to trust and follow the Lord Jesus during His public ministry.

The Book of Acts first mentions Stephen in Chapter 6. As the early church grew in maturity and in numbers, the burden of caring for widows quickly became a source of contention between Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. It is no new tactic that Satan uses a spirit of selfishness and bitterness to rob the church of life, unity, and power. In first-century Jerusalem, Hebrew Jews had a deep cultural distaste for Hellenistic Jews. Although both were descended from Abraham, the Hebraistic Jews gave their children Hebrew names, preserved the Hebrew language, and viewed their Greek counterparts with suspicion and distrust.

Hellenistic Jews were Jewish people who had grown to accommodate Greek ideas and culture since the days of the Maccabees. They often gave their children Greek names, spoke the Greek language, and adopted Greek customs in matters of education and business. Some of the disciples of Jesus were obviously of Hellenistic background. Andrew, the brother of Peter, had a Greek name, as did Philip. Jesus sometimes ministered to Hellenistic Jews. On one occasion, Jesus was approached in Jerusalem by such a group. They approached Philip and Andrew, who shared their own cultural background, and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:20–22). It is possible that Stephen might have been in this Hellenistic delegation who wanted to meet the Lord Jesus.

As the church grew, Hellenistic Jews complained that their widows were being neglected in preference for the Hebraistic Jewish widows. The apostles decided, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, that their important work of preaching and evangelizing could not be interrupted in order to resolve such disputes. So, the apostles appointed seven deacons, a Greek word that simply means “ministers” or “servants.”

The apostles then charged the congregation: “Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business” (Acts 6:3). Stephen was named as the first of these seven deacons. His duty was to distribute the collections taken among all the widows in the church, without respect to cultural background. As a Hellenistic Jew, he could allay the fears of the suspicious. His duties required a selfless spirit of sacrifice to put aside personal interests and preferences to serve the Church of God.

According to Acts 6:7, as a result of the work of Stephen and the six other deacons, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

But Satan, the great enemy, did not stop his attacks. Unable to divide the Jerusalem church from within, he launched another attack from without. The assault came upon Stephen as he soon attracted the enmity and hatred of the Jewish sects that did not believe in the Lord Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. Scripture records that Stephen was “full of faith and power” and that God granted him the grace to do “great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8).

False witnesses were hired to testify against Stephen, accusing him of uttering “blasphemous words against Moses, and against God” (Acts 6:9–11). Under the charge of blasphemy, Stephen was dragged before the same Sanhedrin that had condemned the Lord Jesus only a few months earlier. According to Acts 6:15, the scene is described as the Sanhedrin looked with bitter hatred upon a meek and humble deacon who sought to obey the teachings of his Master. “And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.”

When accused by the high priest, Stephen slowly and respectfully made his defense. He was not an orator by nature. He was not a Hebrew of the Hebrews like a young rabbi in the room, Saul of Tarsus. Stephen was not trained at the feet of the wise Gamaliel; as a Hellenistic Jew, he was despised by the Sanhedrin. Yet, his earnest sermon before the council proved that he had a deep and powerful knowledge of Holy Scripture. Jesus had promised that His Holy Spirit would be with His disciples in the hour of persecution to give them the words to say. Christ was faithful to His promise.

Stephen opened his account by telling of God’s covenant with Abraham. He traced the history of God’s people through the days of the patriarchs to the days of Joseph. Stephen emphasized the point that Joseph was despised by his brothers, yet he was the one God had chosen to save the very brothers who had hated him.

Continuing, Stephen next described Moses as the deliverer of his people, and yet Moses also was hated by the people that he had loved and delivered. From that point, Stephen then traced the apostasy of God’s people and how they had rejected their own deliverance. He compared the Jewish Sanhedrin sitting before him with the brothers who had hated and despised Joseph and with those Jewish rebels who had rejected the God-given authority of Moses.

At the climax of his sermon, Stephen boldly proclaimed to an astonished Sanhedrin: “Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye” (Acts 7:51).

The enraged Sanhedrin bristled under this withering condemnation. “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54). In the face of their hatred, Stephen manifested a spirit of confidence and yet of meekness.

“But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55–56). Stephen was given the privilege, in that hour of sacrifice, to see his Lord and Master standing at the portals of Heaven to receive His first New Testament martyr with a crown of life!

“Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:57–59). Young Saul would remember the unforgettable scene for many years to come.

The dying martyr, suffering the pain and agony of death by stoning, followed the example of His Master. Without a word of reproach, Stephen loved even his enemies and prayed for them aloud with his last breath. “And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).

The second stanza of the hymn, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” recounts the martyrdom of Stephen in these inspiring words:

The martyr first, whose eagle eye could pierce beyond the grave;

Who saw his Master in the sky and called on Him to save.

Like Him, with pardon on His tongue in midst of mortal pain,

He prayed for them that did the wrong!

The stanza ends with this question that calls upon us to follow the example of Stephen as he followed Christ by loving his neighbor and loving even his enemies:

Who follows in His train?

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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