Heroes of the Early Church: Stephen
by Naomi Craig
The first we hear about Stephen is in the book of Acts when he is appointed as a deacon to ensure care for the Hellenistic widows.
Where did he come from?
Hellenistic (or Greek) Jews were those of Jewish descent who had lived in and adapted to Greek culture. Hellenists also held to the belief that God was not bound to the temple as if He needed the structure to be worshipped.
Not surprising, those who were currently living in Jerusalem or in the nearby region, felt superior to those who didn't make it to the temple as frequently, and were offended when Hellenists spoke against the temple.
If Stephen was trusted to be a part of the church leadership, it's safe to say he's been around for a while. Perhaps he was there when the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost? Perhaps he was one of the 500+ people the Lord Jesus appeared to after His resurrection?
At any rate we know he was 'full of faith and the Holy Spirit and power' (Acts 6:3, 8) and was well versed in the Hebrew ways.
Stephen comes to center stage after Jesus' ascension, after the church has been functioning for some time. At the end of Acts 4, we see the church were of one heart and in one accord (youth pastor joke, anyone?) and had all things in common. We see the believers giving generously, like Barnabas and the bad example set by Ananias and Sapphira. The Lord is doing mighty things through the hands of the disciples/apostles, and yet some of the widows are being overlooked.
Stephen and 6 other Greek Jews are appointed as Deacons. Not only did he serve the widows in a very tangible way, he also spoke boldly in the Synagogue of the Freedmen. This particular synagogue had representatives from all over the Roman empire, including those from Cilicia, the province that boasted the city Tarsus. Sound familiar?
The Bible says though they disputed Stephen, they couldn't resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. The people brought on men to accuse Stephen of blaspheme, just as they had done for Jesus.
Stephen is brought before the council. Although the false reports keep coming, they can all see his face is like that of an angel.
So Stephen launches into a chapter-long sermon sharing the history of the Jewish people, ending with accusations that they now have betrayed and murdered Jesus. And God Most High does not dwell in the Temple as if He could be contained by man-made constricts.
Just like Peter's audience in Acts 2, those in the council were "cut to the heart." But, unlike Peter's audience who were convicted and believed, these men gnashed their teeth and shoved Stephen outside the city to stone him.
This part of the story is almost as familiar as Jesus' death. Stephen asks in his dying breath that these men's sins be forgiven, and he dies. Christianity's first martyr.
There are a couple of things about this account that are puzzling to our modern mindset.
Why was it that the Jews could execute Stephen, where they couldn't make the final call to crucify Jesus?
Why did everyone scatter out of Jerusalem except the apostles (the original 11 disciples + Judas' replacement)? Acts 8:1b
According to GotQuestions.orgThe long and short of it is that the Jewish religious leaders did not have the legal right to exact the death penalty. However, Rome’s interest in enforcing that rule was subject to many factors, not the least of which was whether or not the incident was—in Rome’s view—worth pursuing. The stoning of Stephen by the Jews was technically illegal, but the Romans had no vested interest in the matter, and the temple leaders in Jerusalem rightly felt that Rome would not respond. Jesus, on the other hand, had caught the attention of many powerful people, and the Jews would not venture to violate Roman law by executing Jesus on their own.
As for the Apostles not leaving Jerusalem? Some speculate that Saul's target at least at first was the Hellenistic Jews turned followers of The Way, those who believed the temple was not the only place to worship God.
Acts 8:1 indicates the whole church was at risk of Saul's persecution, and I'm sure the apostles were fully aware and expected the day they would be worthy of being persecuted for the name of Jesus.
I'm convicted reading Stephen's account. I want my life to be noted as one full of Faith and the Spirit and Power. I want to be willing to share the good news of Christ no matter the cost.
How about you?
Rumors of the risen Christ spread through Jerusalem like a wildfire. Stephen’s brutal stoning accelerates the persecution and sends the faithful fleeing the city.
The Kingdom of God spreads to Damascus, Joppa, Caesarea, Antioch, and Tarsus through the testimonies of Ananias, Tabitha, and Barnabas. While an outraged Saul sets out for Damascus to arrest them all, the followers press on fervently, with the help of the Holy Spirit—though it may cost them their lives.
Four disciples whose lives are intertwined, told in four novellas, chronicling the birth pains of the early church
Author of Biblical fiction, avid reader, pastor's wife, Naomi loves reading the Bible and imagining how things were at the time. When she’s not serving in various areas at church or trying to stay on top of mountains of dishes, you'll most likely find her enjoying a good book and a cup of coffee. Naomi co-hosts #BehindTheStory on YouTube and helps facilitate Biblical Fiction Aficionados Community on Facebook. When not writing or trying to wrangle social media, Naomi attempts to get her rescue dog to be cute on command for the many pics she takes throughout the day.