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What Is the Significance of the Stoning of Stephen?

Stephen is a model for us in how to live and how to die — in full trust of Christ. His story is a great reminder that Jesus is with those who follow Him, and especially present when His followers give their life for His name.

Borrowed Light
Sep 07, 2022
What Is the Significance of the Stoning of Stephen?

Jesus told his disciples:

 “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18-20).

I often wonder if, when they first heard this verse, the disciples were thinking that their first opposition would be against Rome or other Gentiles.

But in reality, “the world” to which Jesus referred encompassed even the Jewish religious leaders. They, too, were rejecting Jesus, and as such, they would also reject the disciples.

We see this played out in the death of the man who is known as the first Christian martyr, Stephen.

But we also see in the death of Stephen what Tertullian would point to several years later, namely, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” But why was Stephen stoned? And what was the result?

Why Was Stephen Stoned?

In Acts 6, we read about a situation that was threatening to split the infant church. A group of widows was being neglected, and it was causing an administrative nightmare.

From this difficult situation, though, the church decided to set apart a group of people who would be shock-absorbing servants — deacons.

One of these deacons was a man named Stephen. A man who it was said was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” and who was “working great wonders and signs among the people.”

That “among the people” might give us a clue as to why he got himself into trouble with the religious leaders.

This is, in part, why the religious leaders hated Jesus so much. He was teaching with authority and boldness in a way that exposed the emptiness of those who claimed to be in power. He threatened their position.

When Stephen comes along, filled with the same Spirit as Jesus and proclaiming truth with similar boldness, the religious leaders seized him and sought to silence him. But rather than be silenced, Stephen spoke with even more boldness.

Acts 7 is a beautiful example of telling the story of the whole Bible and tying it to Christ. But it’s not the same type of evangelistic sermon, which Peter gave a few chapters prior. Stephen’s sermon is a different kind of prophetic speech.

He isn’t drawing his hearers to faith as much as he is giving defense and then proclaiming their guilt. In some ways, it’s not surprising that they responded as they did. This was Stephen’s concluding point:

“You stiff-necked people… you are just like your ancestors. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They put to death those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:51-52).

What is interesting is that we do not see this narrative playing out like a trial. There is no formality to this, just anger.

They raised up a false accusation: that Stephen was speaking against the temple and trying to overturn the customs of Moses.

And as per usual, there is some truth to the charges. New life in Jesus does challenge the customs of Moses. And Jesus himself spoke about the temple being destroyed.

Stephen’s sermon is a defense of these two points. And his point is that they are misunderstanding both Moses and the temple. He shows how both point to Jesus.

They are misunderstanding the kingdom and doing what the wicked have always done — rejecting God’s messengers. Their ancestors didn’t heed the prophets, and neither were they.

They didn’t respond to Stephen with any sort of trial. There aren’t formal charges of blasphemy leveled and then proven.

They don’t even present evidence that he is speaking against the temple or overturning the customs of Moses.

I guess they assumed that his speech was enough to condemn him. They respond with anger. Cast Stephen out of the city. And there they stone him.

They did exactly what Stephen said. They rejected God’s spokesperson.

What Happened as a Result?

The way in which Stephen died certainly had an impact. Stephen spoke of the heavens opening and there seeing Jesus at the right hand of God. This was more than their ears could bear, but for Stephen, this was a deep comfort.

And as F.F. Bruce said so well in “The Acts of the Apostles,” “The presence of the Son of Man at God’s right hand meant that for his people a way of access to God had been opened up more immediate and heart-satisfying than the temple ritual could provide.” This is a stamp of approval on Stephen’s sermon.

The standing of the Son of Man also is an indication of Jesus’ readiness to respond. He is responding to and welcoming Stephen into his rest, and he is also standing in judgment against the religious leaders.

When Stephen sees this vision, he dies in a way similar to our Lord. But here, he asks the Lord Jesus to receive His Spirit and to not hold their sin against them. Stephen’s words, vision, and prayer is an early example of a high Christology.

But something else happens in this story, which will thrust the Book of Acts forward. We are introduced to a young man named Saul. The garments of Stephen are laid at the feet of Saul.

This is likely an indication that this young man (probably somewhere between 24-40) is the ringleader of the stoning of Stephen. We read in Acts 8:1 that Saul “approved of his execution.” This was pleasing to the young man.

There is no indication from the text that the martyrdom of Stephen softened the heart of Saul. In fact, it seems almost the opposite. Paul is emboldened, and he continues to breathe out murderous threats against anything that has to do with Jesus.

It would only be after his eyes were opened that Paul’s persecution of Christians, like Stephen, would weigh heavily upon him. But I also wonder if this increased hardness might be an indication that Saul/Paul was influenced by Stephen’s speech.

Perhaps he knew that Stephen was correct, and this is what caused him to spiral further into rebellion. We do not know. But we do know that those garments at the feet of Paul would have an impact.

What Is the Significance of the Stoning of Stephen?

Stephen was the first Christian martyr. This was a harbinger of things to come. The way in which Stephen died has been an inspiration to others in precarious situations for centuries. 

Stephen is a model for us in how to live and how to die — in full trust of Christ. His story is a great reminder that Jesus is with those who follow Him, and especially present when His followers give their life for His name. 

His death also introduces Saul to the Book of Acts. This will be important because there is a sense in which those garments of suffering laid at the feet of Saul will be picked up by the young man.

But not in the victory of having snuffed out another Christ-follower, but instead, Saul will wear that suffering in his own body. Paul will follow Stephen in suffering for Christ.

Though we may not be called to die as Stephen did, we are certainly called to live as he did. We are to testify of Christ, whether it means life or death. We follow Paul, who followed Stephen, who followed Christ.

For further reading:

Are We Really to Suffer for Christ?

What Can We Learn from Christian Martyrs?

What Is a Martyr? Definition and Meaning

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Mari

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is http://mikeleake.net and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.

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