I recently listened to two sermons on this section of Acts.
The two sermons were very different. And both important. But as I searched the Internet for notes and comments and articles on Acts 6-8 it became evident that one of the sermons I’d heard was a pretty common way of preaching about this passage and the other one wasn’t.
So Stephen — y’know he doesn’t make a long appearance in the Bible. He first shows up in Acts 6:3 when the original 12 apostles were trying to resolve a complaint about food distribution:
3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.
The apostles decide that they need to create what we would call a middle management layer within the young church organization, and to tap Stephen for a key role:
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The next thing we know, Stephen and his group are apparently doing a great job:
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
And then suddenly Stephen is in big trouble:
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. 10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Couple of things to notice:
- Stephen was doing what he was told to do
- It is explicitly pointed out that the Holy Spirit is working through Stephen – that Stephen himself, while a fine man, neither had to, nor did, answer God’s calling with only his own tools in his toolbox.
- Spoiler alert: Stephen gets stoned to death.
So this story is often taught as a story about Christian martyrdom. Or more particularly as “the” seminal story about Christian martyrdom. And that’s important. One of the sermons I listened to was a sermon about Christian martyrdom.
But the other sermon I listened to didn’t mention Christian martyrdom at all. It was a sermon about Stephan’s response to being persecuted. The preacher read all the way through this long Bible passage, out loud, and invited people to look at Stephen’s words.
Specifically the invitation was to not focus on the political tension surrounding these circumstances, but rather to look at what Stephen actually did (presumably still guided by the Holy Spirit), which was to focus on Jesus.
Yes, he did die. But he died focusing on Jesus right to the very end, not thinking about persecution or martyrdom.
Is this an important lesson we may be missing when we focus on this as a story about Christian martyrdom?