Stephen, the First Christian Martyr
The first Christian to be martyred for his faith in Jesus Christ was Stephen (Saint Stephen). His martyrdom is described in the book of Acts of the New Testament, chapters 6 and 7.
The early Church in Jerusalem grew so rapidly that the apostles needed help in church administration, notably in the daily ministration and assistance of widows. For this task they ordained seven men “full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). One of the seven was Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 6:5) who “did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8).
Some Jewish men, not being able “to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (Acts 6:10), stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes against Stephen, seized him and brought him before the council and the high priest in Jerusalem, where false witnesses accused him of blasphemy. Even the members of the council “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
In his powerful sermon, Stephen defended the Christian faith before the council, explaining that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and fulfilled the ancient prophecies. He denounced the Jews as “betrayers and murderers” of God’s Son, the Just One (Acts 7:52) and called them “stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears”, who “always resist the Holy Ghost” (Acts 7:51). The members of the council became so enraged, that they “gnashed on him with their teeth” (Acts 7:54). After telling them that he saw the heavens opened, the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, they cast him out of Jerusalem and stoned him to death (Acts 7:55–58). Stephen’s last words were: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59) and “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). Stephen was probably killed on Passover, the spring following Jesus’ crucifixion.
Stephen’s executioners laid their clothes at Saul’s feet, a Pharisee who persecuted Christians. Through God’s grace, after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (Paul) became the greatest apostle and he was called the Apostle to the Gentiles.
Stephen’s death brought “a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1)