By THOMAS HUKAHU
LAST week, we studied Barnabas, a fatherly figure in the Early Church, who was the first Christian to have reached out and helped Paul (formerly known as Saul of Tarsus) get to meet the apostles and other believers after he was converted.
His real name was Joses, and Barnabas was his nickname because he was “someone who consoled or encouraged others”.
In this week’s article, we will look at the first martyr of the Early Church, someone who was the first to have died for his faith, a well-known Jew in the first church at Jerusalem.
Cult leader abuses followers
Before I continue with this article, let me share with you a story that had appeared last week in the media.
There was this news story about a South Korean cult leader who was arrested in her country. Among other things, it was found that she held 400 of her followers captive in Fiji and subjected them to violent beatings and other harsh treatment.
Seeing that news article reminded me about the need for people to study the Bible and know the truth from false doctrines which are taught by many self-proclaimed prophets in these last days.
(It is a bit like the case of Jim Jones, as was discussed in an article by me two weeks ago.)
Go online and search for the South Korean leader and her followers.
It is a pity that in today’s world of information and technology, many are still fooled by people in the name of a religion.
Stephen, one of the seven
The character we will look at this week is Stephen.
He is first mentioned in the book of Acts, the historical book of the Early Church, a good place to check for the proper way of conducting affairs in any church in today’s age.
In Acts 6, we learn that in the early days, when the church started “the number of disciples multiplied” (verse 1).
The church then appointed seven men to deal with its other affairs while the apostles spent their time concentrating on “prayer and the word” (verse 4); that is, they prayed and studied the word to better teach it to the followers.
The seven men, the church’s first deacons, included Steven, Phillip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolas.
Of the seven, a bit about Stephen and Phillip is mentioned in the Bible. Nothing is known about the other five.
Stephen was said to be a Greek-speaking Jew and therefore may have spent part of his life away from Jerusalem, as in what is now known as mainland Europe.
The Phillip mentioned here is the same teacher who went to minister to the Ethiopian official in Acts chapter 8 (something that you can read yourself).
Do you understand why the seven men were chosen?
Yes, they were to assist the apostles deal with matters regarding the day-to-day running of the church. That would free up the apostles’ time to focus on prayer and preaching.
Because of this decision, the word continued to spread and the church grew (verse 7).
In today’s world, church members expect the pastor (or bishop) to do almost everything and they expect their church to grow. That will not happen.
Churches grow when everyone chips in into the Lord’s work.
Stephen, the preacher
We often think of deacons as the quiet ones who leave the teaching and preaching of the word to the apostles (in the old days) or pastors (today).
That is not the case in the Early Church. Deacons like Stephen and Phillip were well-acquainted with the scriptures and taught them to those who would give their ears. (This will be illustrated later in Stephen’s case.)
Verse 8 tells us that Stephen did great wonders and miracles. He was gifted and chosen. He was also unafraid to debate with Jews who worshipped in different synagogues (Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandriens and Asians).
Libertines referred to Jews who were once taken as prisoners by Roman generals and then set free, Cyrenians would have come from Cyrene, in present-day Libya in Africa, as were those from Alexandria in Egypt, and Asia referred to the coast from Palestine (Judaea) all the way up to present-day Turkey.
(Asia in the New Testament referred to that region along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and not places like India or China, as we would do today.)
It is mentioned in verse 10 that all these educated and knowledgeable Jews “were not able to resist the wisdom and spirit by which he spake” – which means Stephen argued better than those Jews, he was more logical and was evidently convincing.
As is the case in a debate or physical sport, some people walk away acknowledging their defeat. However, there would be others who are unsatisfied and want to hurt someone, as those who persuaded some men to say Stephen had blasphemed (verse 13). They also stirred up the people and the elders and teachers of the law (verse 14).
Then they brought Stephen before the Sanhedrin, the supreme legal court of Jewish elders.
Stephen was not intimidated in anyway and spoke to them. That speech (which was more like a sermon) took almost all of chapter 7 of Acts. The speech was more like a historical sermon that took the Jews back over their history (verses 2-49).
Then he told them that Moses had made a prophecy about a prophet and he was pointing them to Jesus as the prophet that they were promised in the old days.
Unfortunately, they did not like that conclusion. They could not accept that Jesus was the Christ, the Chosen One.
Jews did not accept Jesus
Let me state something here to help you to better understand the situation and the fierce opposition that Stephen faced from his own people, the Jews.
The Jews did not accept Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Chosen One.
Day after day, as Jesus was preaching and teaching people in Judaea and the surrounding region, the Pharisees and Sadducees and others followed him and listened to him. Many of them knew that the teacher from the north with the Galilean accent taught with unction and conviction. He knew the letter and spirit of the scriptures.
Crowds followed him to listen to him and benefit from what good things he did, including feeding people with bread and fish.
However, the law-savvy Jews found Jesus’ doctrines strange.
And it did not make things better for them when he told them that “he came from above and was going back to the Father above”. He claimed that “he was the way, the truth and the life”, as in John 14.6. That, according to the Jew, is blasphemous.
And that was because no single prophet or teacher, not even John the Baptist, claimed that he was from above and would go back to be with the Father.
That was the main reason for the hatred that the teachers of the law had for Jesus and his followers.
(Human beings generally do not like a Mr Young to tell them that he is better than them and their ancestors. We all have a certain kind of pride that rejects people who claim to be better than us, even if they really are better than us.)
So, the seemingly strange doctrines that Stephen was teaching, as well as his foreign-sounding accent (he was a Greek-speaking Jew) may have sorely infuriated that Jews from different synagogues as well the Jews who grew up in Judaea.
That I believe were the reasons behind the events that led to Stephen’s martyrdom.
Stephen, the martyr
Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian Church. His blood was the first to be spilt for his faith in Jesus Christ,
It is mentioned that as he was stoned (Acts 7.58-60), Saul of Tarsus (Paul) was nearby and watching what was happening. Actually, people took off their jackets and left them at his feet to participate in the stoning.
As they stoned Stephen, he called upon God and said: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
He also cried out in a loud voice: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
In saying that, while being killed, I am of the view that his sermon ended well and may have convicted many people who were present on that day.
I am also of the view that the grace with which he left this world for the other life may have bothered Saul of Tarsus and may actually have been the seed that started the work of conviction and eventual salvation in Saul’s life.
Of course, that is just my theory.
Stephen lived a full life
Stephen was a mighty man of God, a man well-versed with the scriptures and was very brave.
He was a leader and was given over to his faith in the Lord.
There is no mention of Stephen as being married or having relatives in and around Judaea when he was killed by his own people.
However, he would always be remembered in the Christian Church as a martyr, the first of many to follow later.
He is believed to have died at the age of 29, still a young man but one who had lived a very short but full life in the Lord’s ministry. (Some Christian biographers refer to such believers as those who preferred burning the candle at both ends rather than at one end.)
Stephen’s life may have encouraged other early Christians to be brave in the Lord’s work, as well as convicting others, like Saul, the young Pharisee, who was standing nearby and watching while other Jews stoned him.
Next week: The education of Luke
- Thomas Hukahu is a freelance writer.