The Death of Stephen
Focus Passage: Acts 8:1
‘And Saul was consenting unto his death.’
Saul was consenting unto the death of Stephen, the young deacon often referred to as the ‘proto-martyr’ of the Christian faith. The term ‘proto-martyr’ is made use of as a designation for an individual who is understood to be the first to die for a particular cause. We are told nothing from the Scriptures about Stephen other than the information contained in chapters six and seven of the book of Acts. We learn of his being chosen by the people and appointed by the apostles to be one of the seven selected to see to the business of the ministration of the temporal needs of widows in those very early days of the church. These seven are commonly considered to be the prototypes of the church officers later to be known as deacons [servants; ministers]. In any event, Stephen was among those seven that were set aside by the laying on of the hands of the apostles.
So far as we can determine from the account of Stephen’s activity after this appointment, he may have been singled out by jealous Jews for his being ‘full of grace and power’ and doing many ‘great wonders and signs among the people.’ This should not surprise us, since we see the same response even today toward any that would make themselves to be conspicuous by their willingness to stand up and be counted for the Truth as it is in Christ. It is relatively easy in this country to profess allegiance to Christ and adherence to His teaching in the Scriptures, but if we were to be translated somehow to any number of other nations where the ‘Holy One of Israel’ is not tolerated, it would be an entirely different story. We can readily imagine that we might be able to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel if called upon to do so. We may read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and suppose ourselves in the place of those remarkable confessors whose faith was such that they were able to choose death in the flames over denying the Christ. Yet, in our actual practice and behavior, often we cannot even bear mocking, much less scourging; we cannot bear the ‘heat’ of being thought ‘righteous overmuch,’ much less the innumerable types of the fires of persecution that we may be faced with. The young man, Stephen, was undoubtedly one who had cried, ‘Lord, increase my faith!’ and it was marvelously increased upon the occasion of his being challenged by those religious representatives of the various synagogues of the place. His faith and his heart were both enlarged to the point that those murderous persons ‘saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.’
I would have us to consider the ‘young man named Saul’ at whose feet these executioners laid down their garments lest they be spattered with blood from their foul deed of stoning to death this child of God. We are not informed of any other circumstance beyond that ‘Saul was consenting unto his death.’ We must move ahead in time and beyond the experience of Saul recorded in chapter nine, when the Lord met him in blazing light on the Damascus Road. Saul experienced regeneration and conversion through that marvelous meeting that forever changed his perspective and his life; even his name subsequently became Paul, the apostle. But he seems never to have forgotten Stephen, and his own part in his stoning. As Paul, the servant of God, he speaks of it on more than one occasion. Is this that sin that perhaps haunted him the rest of his days; that sin of which the image and remembrance would never leave him, though he knew of certainty that God had forgiven him for that sin and every sin he ever committed, so that he could with much assurance say to Timothy, and ourselves, ‘I thank him that enabled me, even Christ Jesus our Lord, for that he counted me faithful, appointing me to his service; though I was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.’
Nonetheless, we witness him confessing before the people in Acts 22, not only his newfound faith in God through Jesus Christ, but his terrible wickedness of which God had forgiven him, and how he said to the Lord:
Lord, they themselves know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee: and when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and consenting, and keeping the garments of them that slew him.
Even as it seems from Paul’s epistles that he never got over the reality that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, would suffer and die for him, so it seems he never got over his part in the stoning of Stephen, though he embraced the forgiveness of it. We know that for those whom Christ died, He died to satisfy God’s justice for every sin that they did, do, and will commit, and yet there are some things that ‘haunt’ us because of their particular heinousness. Even at a later date, Paul restates the horrific memories of the things he had done. Making his defense against the charges of the Jews, he related to King Agrippa, things that he had, before his conversion,, done contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth:
And this I also did in Jerusalem: and I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I gave my vote against them.
Is there something that we have done before, or even since, our conversion to the Truth that we cannot forget, though it has been graciously forgiven because of the blood of Christ? Paul’s example should inform us that there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. Yet, the positive side is that it should impel us ever and again to the cross of our Savior. Thoughts of our sinfulness which remind us again and again that Jesus died for us, even while we were yet sinners, may be instrumental in leading us back once and again to the cross. It should compel us, as the prophet speaks, Zechariah 13:1, to plunge into that ‘Fountain that has been opened for sin and for uncleanness to the house of David.’
David Farmer, elder
Fellowship Bible Church
More in David's Commentaries
February 23, 2020Psalm 46: ‘God is our Refuge and Strength.’
February 16, 2020Psalm 40:7 ‘In the roll of the book it is written of me.’
February 9, 2020Leviticus 1 ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’