The stoning of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen had a powerful ministry, which led him into conflict with certain religious leaders. “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” Acts 6:8-15 ESV. It doesn’t specifically say this, but I’m sure “the council” referred to here is the group known as the Sanhedrin. The point is, Stephen was teaching and preaching about Jesus of Nazareth, and had the power of healing upon him. He was living in the Kingdom of God. Those who would not accept Jesus as the Christ sought to bring charges against him before the council.
And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And he began to speak a powerful message beginning with Abraham, through Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, all the way to Jesus. Read Acts chapter 7 for the full speech, I won’t include it here. But Acts 7 ends with those in the council breaking into a rage and stoning Stephen to death.
“Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Acts 7:54-60 ESV. This is what it looks like when we follow the lamb of God. This is how we help Jesus take away the sin of the world. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen is being very Christ like here, don’t you think? He is being a little Christ himself. You might call him a Christ-ian. Yes, a Christian. And just as the way Jesus died affected those watching who did not yet believe – “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark 15:39 ESV – so Stephen’s death had a similar effect on some watching. Because just as this centurion could not deny the power of God in a man dying in agony right in front of him who would pray in that moment not for vengeance but forgiveness, there was at least one man watching (and participating in) Stephen’s murder who must have been moved, if ever so slightly, at the sight of Stephen similarly praying forgiveness as he was being stoned.
And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. This young man named Saul would later be met by the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. At Stephen’s death, he was one of the leaders in charge. It looks like he didn’t actually throw the stones, but he was watching and probably directing the whole thing. And he certainly saw and heard Stephen praying forgiveness for those who were killing him. And maybe, this was somewhere in in his mind and heart when he met Jesus out on the road to Damascus, on his way with signed papers giving him permission to arrest and further persecute those followers of “the way”. Except he did meet Jesus, and underwent a 3 day conversion which ended with scales falling off his eyes and one of those followers of the way, whom he was on the road to arrest and persecute, waiting to call him “brother”. This us the Saul who would become Paul, known to us as Saint Paul. This is the Saint Paul who would write 2/3 of our New Testament. As in Romans, Corinthians, Colossians, Thessalonians, that guy. The same guy who would ultimately be martyred himself. The same guy who would write Phillipians, the most joyful book in the Bible, as he was waiting in a Roman prison to be executed. Because of his Roman citizenship, he would be privileged to simply have his head removed rather than be crucified. Maybe partly because of the dying witness of one Saint, his heart was opened just enough for Jesus to step in to turn one of the greatest sinners, a murderer, we would call him a terrorist, into what we now consider one of our greatest saints.