A Burning Love for Christ....Stephen the Martyr
Today is January 8, the memorial day of St.Stephen, one among the first deacons and first martyr of the early Christian Church. His story appears Acts 6:1-8:2.The other reference to Stephen in the NT refers to this story (Acts 11:19; 22:20).
According to Acts 6:1-6, a dispute had developed in the Jerusalem between the “Hellenists” (Probably Jewish Christians from the Diaspora whose first language was Greek) and the “Hebrews” (Palestinian Jewish Christians who spoke Aramaic). In order to resolve the dispute, seven Hellenists were chosen for positions of leadership, one of whom was Stephen. Thus, Stephen functions in Acts as the key representative for the very significant Hellenistic Jewish element in the primitive Jerusalem Church.
Stephen is portrayed in Acts as a bold man, wise, full of faith, and possessed of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5, 8, 10).The ecstatic aspect of Stephen’s short Christian career is highlighted in the account. It was by the power of the Spirit that Stephen confronted his fellow Hellenists who did not believe in Jesus as Messiah. They, in turn, brought Stephen’s activities to the attention of a wider audience: the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:11-15).
Apparently, the opposition to Stephen was based primarily on a deduction he had made from his messianic faith in Jesus: that, with the vindication of Jesus as Messiah, the religion of the Temple had outlived its usefulness and the Mosaic law should now be seen in a new and different light (Acts 6:11-14, Mathew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 2:16).Stephen’s opponents undermine the basic legitimacy of the religious practice associated with the Temple.
The speech of Stephen in Acts 7:2-53 is presented as Stephen’s defense of his position. It also functions, however, as a model of early Christian apologetic to Hellenistic Judaism. The essential point is that Israel has always been slow to accept a dramatic new activity of God in fulfilling his promises. After the promises were given to Abraham (Verses 2-8), Israel systematically rebelled against the call of its inspired leaders (verses 9-43) and was too prone to isolate the presence and activity of God to local places such as the Temple rather than see God in crucial historical events such as the recent case of Jesus’ exaltation in Jerusalem (verses 44-53).Once again, Israel was in danger of misperceiving a new expression of God’s activity. According to Acts, this message angered Stephen’s audience and he was stoned to death without judicial hearing before either Jewish or Roman authorities (verses 54-58).
It is clear that the writer of Acts wished to draw a close parallel between Stephen’s death and that if Jesus ( Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60).Stephen and Jesus, both filled with the Spirit, died unjustly with a word of forgiveness on their lips.
As Stephen, especially in his death, is linked to Jesus, so also Acts links him to the future with the mention of Saul’s (i.e Paul) consenting presence at the martyrdom (Acts 7:58; 8:1; 22:20).Stephen’s death and the subsequent scattering of this fellow messianic Hellenists led to the mission of Philip in Samaria and elsewhere (Acts 8:4-40) and ultimately to the wider mission spearheaded by Paul throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire (Acts 11:19)
Thus, although Stephen appears in only one episode in Acts, the author of Acts was conscious of the immense theological and historic significance of the early Hellenistic Jewish Christians in Jerusalem of whom Stephen is exemplary figure.
By Fr.Thomas Philipose